The bell clanged 5 times announcing that school was letting out. As usual, Arun stuffed his book and pencil in his bag and rushed past the herd of children headed to the school gate. It took him exactly 7 minutes everyday to run through the mangrove and on home. His mother would have his lunch ready – steaming hot rotis, a vegetable, a small heap of steamed rice and a bowl of yellow lentil curry. Arun would take his plate to his grandmother’s room and eat while she told him a story. Having eaten her lunch earlier, Arun’s grandma (whom he affectionately called “Aaji”) would retire to her room and await his arrival with much anticipation. Once the story was told and the lunch over, she would settle in for a nap while he went back out into the courtyard to finish his homework. This was their schedule 5 days a week, one they adhered to strictly.
Arun’s aaji (his dad’s mother) had lived with them since before he was born. While his parents made sure he was clothed and fed and sent to school, his aaji taught him all the things she missed out on teaching her own kids. She and Arun could talk for hours. She would tell him stories from her childhood and how she could shame a boy at a game of marbles. Arun was amused at how much of a tomboy his grandma was. She was the first in the village to have traveled to and stayed in the big city. She had even worked there for a few years which made her very worldly. Arun’s friends loved coming over and she would regale them with the same stories. She was the apple of Arun’s eye!
Arun’s dad, Namit worked at the fabrication company on the other side of the river. As a child, Namit had always wanted to become a school teacher. History was his favorite subject and he was good at it. But life had other plans. When his dad died, he was only 17 and with 3 other mouths to feed, including 2 younger siblings, plans for a higher education in the city fell to the wayside. Namit’s mother, Karuna did odd jobs like weaving quilts, making desserts and marinating pickles for the homes in the village. Namit worked at the local grocery store unpacking and arranging goods and sometimes delivering mail for the local post office. While this supplemented the family income, it barely left any money for emergencies or savings. Namit resigned himself to the fact that he would have to sign up for a regular job that would pay better. He also made a promise to himself that when he had a child, he would make sure they would never have to sacrifice their dream to take care of the household.
Once Arun was born, Namit and his wife, Asha started putting away money for his education. The intent was that if something were to ever happen to one or both of them, this money would help fund his continued education. Karuna still made pickles and papaddams and contributed her earnings into the Arun fund too. They all had big dreams for him. Arun was a bright child and nothing made him happier than making his family happy. He’d bring home his result book and smiles would spread across faces in the house.
His dad wanted him to become a civil engineer. The village needed someone who could help build a better infrastructure. His mother thought he’d make a darn good doctor given how he was bringing home and patching up stray animals and birds all the time. “A vet is not a real doctor, Asha” her husband would tease her. “And in a village like ours, he will hardly make any money.” She knew Namit had a point but she still continued to dream. Karuna knew Arun wanted to be neither a doctor nor an engineer. “Aaji, I want to grow up and be a story teller like you” he used to say. “Arun, to tell stories, you need to live a varied life” she would say to him. “You need to travel to new places, check out new cultures, cuisines and people. Become a man of the world.” Arun would start to daydream. “But Aaji, I don’t want to leave you behind. If I travel, will you come with me?” Karuna would laugh at his innocence and say “I wouldn’t let you leave without me!”
Years later, Arun was pursuing his dream. He was a travel expert for a renowned travel magazine and a respected blogger in the travel circles. He had climbed Mt Everest with the Sherpas and been to the war-ravaged areas of Iraq. He was known for his bizarre food tastes from crispy fried scorpions to balut eggs to moldy, wormy cheeses. Every trip, he bought a local postcard and sent it with pictures of himself to his Aaji. Karuna was beside herself with joy watching her grandson achieve his dream. Namit and Asha weren’t too sure when he set out but they now reveled in his success too. Every Friday evening, they’d meet in the school courtyard to share stories and photographs of their son’s latest adventures with the village folks.
Arun or Ari as he was now known in his circles, was skiing in Vail, Colorado when he got news that his beloved Aaji had passed. He was on the next flight home just in time for her funeral. It’s now been 4 years since she passed. Arun is still traveling and writing. He now wears a small vial on a silver chain around his neck. The vial contains a few pinches of Karuna’s ashes. “Aaji, I promised you I’d take you along. Hope you’re having as good a time as I am” he says every so often. He’s certain she is enjoying every single moment!