A series of 6 short stories, sleepless explores memories from childhood through the musings of a woman who is coming to terms with growing up and growing old.
Read the entire series here.
It had been a tough day. Nothing in particular had happened. The house was running smoothly as it usually did. I got to work on time and finished on time. There were no problems with lunch, dinner, clients or family. But the day had not been good. I had fallen asleep annoyed and exhausted, without knowing why.
I wasn’t surprised when I woke up again at 3:00 am — 3.15 to be precise. It was just as well. My mind was heavy, shoulders stiff and throat parched, with a feeling of deep unease in the pit of my stomach.
My husband and daughter were sleeping peacefully. I felt resentment at their ability to sleep so well and guilt for feeling resentment.
I got up, lugged my heavy body to the bathroom and sat on the pot. I decided to stay put for a while till my mind cleared. The hum of the exhaust fan was calming. The bathroom smelt nice — of soap and perfume. It reminded me of my mother’s cupboard — a heady mix of naphthalene balls, clove, perfume and rose.
I lived in a joint family when I was younger, headed by a patriarch. The women of the house were bound to the kitchen from 6.00 am till as late as 11.00 pm. On days when I didn’t feel like doing anything and my mom was particularly preoccupied in the kitchen, I would ask for her keys. My mother’s cupboard was my safe space. The scent was familiar and welcoming. It never changed. The top half of the cupboard was full of the finest sarees — from the lightest chiffons to the softest silks. I would sit in between her sarees, listening to their gentle rustle — calm, quiet, non-judgemental and reassuring. It felt like sitting next to an old friend.
I don’t have too many memories of spending time with my mother. Did she read to me at night? Did we chat and talk about our day? Did we play together? I wished I remembered my mother as a young woman. What was she like? Did she laugh a lot? Did she like to dance? What did she like to eat? What was her favourite piece of clothing? What perfume did she wear? I realised that I had never asked her.
I wonder if my daughter would have similar questions when she is older. Would she remember the time we spent together — reading, drawing, playing, chatting? Would she remember me as a young mother who loved her perfumes, bath products, oils, soaps and serums? Would she know my favourite song, book and movie?
I sighed. This was going nowhere. My thoughts were even more muddled. I was moving from resentment to guilt — a dangerous space to be in, in the middle of the night.
When I was nine years old, my mother had left me with my grandmother and gone to meet her friends. In an attempt to entertain me, my grandmother had decided to watch a horror movie with me. It was called ‘Kab, Kyun aur Kahan’ (When, Why and Where) — a murder mystery with a horror twist. I am sure there is more to the story, but this is what I remember.
Pran played the quintessential villain, Dharmendra was the dashing police officer and there were two women friends — both of whom I don’t remember. The main woman is very rich and lives in a huge bungalow with her friend.
The plot centers around an incident which takes place on a dark stormy night. Pran enters the house of a rich woman to try and rape her. The woman pulls out a gun. Her friend is behind her. The gun goes off. Pran dies. The friends decide to dispose the body without getting the police involved. They put the body in a trunk and drive out to a marshland where they dump the trunk in a pond and watch it sink. All the while, it’s raining, there is adequate thunder and lightning, its dark and it’s pretty scary.
Next morning Dharmendra comes to investigate, looking dashing and providing the audience a much needed break from the incident. The women deny any knowledge of or involvement with Pran. The day passes and the sun sets. When the women go to sleep at night — the horror begins. Footsteps are heard in the house- soft, steady and menacing — walking towards the main woman’s bedroom while she trembles in fear clutching her blanket. The music is minimal but ominous. This is an old bungalow, with a wide staircase and long hallways. The hallways have lights on the wall. With each footstep we hear, one light in the hallway is switched off.
Now imagine watching this scene as a child. You hear footsteps but can’t see them. You see lights getting switched off one by one. You see a woman trembling in her dark bedroom. This continues night after night till the woman is about to break.
Eventually, dashing Dharmendra figures out the plot. Pran is actually alive. The main woman’s friend and Pran have joined hands to hatch a long convoluted and evil plan to make the main woman go mad, so that they can take over her property. So on the night of the big incident, when the gun goes off, it’s the woman’s friend who pulls the trigger behind her. Dharmendra digs up the trunk from the marsh, finds it empty and races back to the main woman’s house to save her just in time from going mad or getting killed by Pran — I don’t remember this clearly. Pran and the woman’s friend are caught. Happy Ending.
Except that by the time the movie was over, I was so terrified that I was wailing, wanting my mother to be home and wanting my grandmother to stop the TV immediately. My mom came back after the movie got over. I developed a deep seated fear of sounds at night and till date haven’t been able to sleep very well on holidays, or in other people’s homes.
I let out a huge sigh. Why would someone watch a horror movie with a child at night? I remember asking my mother this question as I hugged her tightly, terrified to move or open my eyes. Since then, her cupboard became my safe space and she handed me her keys whenever I asked for them. I would close the cupboard doors and take deep breaths, inhaling cloves, perfume and the smell of the silks.
Off late, I have begun to invest in good sarees — silks mostly. I had opened the cupboard yesterday while deciding what to wear to work when my daughter crawled in and exclaimed, “Your cupboard smells so good mumma! Do you put perfume on your clothes?”
She may not remember what I was like when I was young, how we spent time together or any of my favourites. But I hope she remembers the smell of her mother’s cupboard and finds comfort in it on tough days - just like I did.
I flushed, gently shut the bathroom door, went back to the bedroom and opened my cupboard. I hadn’t put a lock on it. I had an old teak wood cupboard - a set of two actually, bought at a steal from someone who wanted something more modern and wanted to get ‘rid of’ the space occupying pieces of furniture in her bedroom. We didn’t give her time to change her mind. The cupboards were huge - 4 feet wide, 6 feet tall and 3 feet deep. They were simple and beautiful with an old world charm. I realised that they looked a lot like my mother’s cupboard - except this set was bigger. I put my face between my silk sarees. They rustled gently, welcoming me. I inhaled the familiar smell of clove, naphthalene balls and perfume.
My knots in my stomach eased up. My breathing grew deep and calm. I stood there for a while, inhaling and exhaling — warm in the company of an old memory of an old friend.