All eyes were on this woman as she walked into the restaurant, that woman in red. The diners stopped dining; the waiters stopped serving. Everyone just stopped in their tracks, so to say. They all looked up, mesmerized, awestruck. She was a vision, a beautiful, elegant woman in a red saree, a big red bindi adorning her forehead, a beautiful red flower peeping from behind her ear and her hair with streaks of grey in it.
The young owner of the restaurant rushed up to her and showed her to her table. And as she sat down, everyone noticed that she wasn’t alone. There was someone with her, a tall, distinguished-looking man who was just a step behind her, who was smiling and who made sure that she was seated comfortably. The two seemed to be happy and content. They sat down, the drinks appeared, and they started talking to each other. The conversation seemed animated, and they had eyes only for each other. Nobody wanted to intrude, but no one could ignore the woman. Sooner or later, people’s eyes kept going back to her. Not that she wasn’t aware of the attention she was getting, but it made no difference to her.
She was at an age, a stage when people’s reactions, behaviour made no difference to her. She just accepted it for what it was. She didn’t feel the need to question or wonder about anything. She just took everything at face value.
The woman everyone was admiring that day was none other than me. My name is Aruna, short for Arundhati, and I am sixty-two years old. I have two daughters, Megha and Maanvi. They are both married. Megha lives in Geneva with her husband and two kids, while Maanvi lives with her partner in Mumbai. I had a husband, Ravi, who I lost almost ten years ago. The two of us spent all our lives in Delhi, where we both worked. I am a lawyer by profession, while Ravi was a doctor. We had a happy married life with the usual set of ups and downs.
I have always been a fiercely independent woman raised in a free and liberal environment. For me, marriage was all about love and companionship. It was never about my being dependent on anyone, even if it were my husband. Ravi was a loving and caring husband who respected my independence. He never interfered with my work. We never had any issues about my long hours, my travel or our sharing of responsibilities of our children. But wait a minute…it would be wrong to say that we never had any issues. The initial years were tough, with his parents living with us and his mother playing the part of the proverbial mother-in-law to the hilt. She, in fact, never liked the fact that I went out to work, but there wasn’t much that she could ever do about it.
But though she couldn’t stop me from working, she made sure that she created complications and misunderstandings between the two of us. My husband, torn between the two, would somehow end up tilting towards his mother and her version of situations. So we had our spats and fights in the initial years primarily related to my complete lack of interest in the kitchen, which was a crime worthy of the strictest form of punishment in her eyes. The first few years were tough, but I was made of stern stuff. No matter how much she instigated Ravi against me, how much we fought, I stuck to my guns and never stopped working or being who I was.
Though I had my two girls in quick succession, I continued with my work, thanks to my mother. Whenever one of them fell sick, or there was some other issue, she stepped in to save the day. Gradually Ravi too came around. He figured that for me, my work, my ambition were too strong to be affected by his mother’s ravings and rantings. I continued to forge ahead in my career and rose to become a Senior partner in one of the leading law firms of the city.
The drive in me to be self -sufficient was so strong that nothing could ever change that. The feelings of liberty, freedom, of being my own person were things that I cherished and valued. And what gave me greater happiness was when I could inspire others to be like that, including my daughters. Thankfully they inherited this desire and drive from me. Both worked hard to get to the top of their fields. While Megha is a lawyer like me, Maanvi is an artist, and both have made a name for themselves in their chosen careers.
When I look back on my life, the one thing that gives me a high is how I raised my daughters. All my life, I have loathed and disliked women who take pride in living off their husbands or making them dance to their tunes so that they can suck some material possession out of them. I have always believed that all young girls should have the desire to build their careers and experience the highs and lows of life on their own merit. I always taught my girls to be ambitious and driven and not just grow up to equip themselves for marriage. They knew from an early age that they had to be career women in-charge of every aspect of their lives. And they didn’t need to look far for inspiration.
So although in the first few years, my mother-in-law could rattle me gradually, I became too busy in my life to get rattled. My work, my family all took over and gradually, her influence on Ravi too diminished. Somewhere seeing me and how my career was shaping up, Ravi also realized that I was too focused on it to ever give in to what she wanted or expected. She had wanted a traditional daughter-in-law who could take care of the home and the hearth while I was none of that and didn’t even want to be like that.
Life moved on, and much as she hated me as destiny would have it, I was the one who took care of her in her last days. In those few years of her life, she developed a heart condition and needed constant care and attention. With none of her other children coming forward to care for her, she had to be with us. In those last few years, we actually became close when she would share a lot with me. I, too by then, had come to terms with her and her ways and was beyond any grudges.
It is strange how, as time passes, things, issues that seem so important at one point, lose all significance. As we move on in life, our priorities change, our concerns change. Maybe that’s what maturity is all about. She no longer had issues about my travel, my inability to cook and I had forgotten all that she had done in the past. In fact, in those days, she would praise me in front of my daughters and advise them to follow in my footsteps!! It was as though both of us had made peace with each other.
And then one morning she didn’t wake up. She had passed away in her sleep. Ravi was heartbroken, but he managed to get a hold of himself and accept her passing with all our support and love. Time went by, the girls grew up, went abroad to study, and we became empty-nesters. But being busy in our lives helped us to see through this phase with considerable ease. Those years were happy years. We had made a good set of friends with whom we spent time, went on vacations, and when the girls visited, our happiness knew no bounds. We did things together. We watched movies, experimented in the kitchen[believe it or not!!] and had a great time.
And then a day after he turned fifty, my husband of twenty-five years bid adieu to this world. He suffered a massive heart attack while at work. Being a doctor, he was in the hospital, but nothing could save him though he got immediate medical attention. The doctors, most of whom were his friends and colleagues, tried their best but could not save him.
The girls and I were devastated. It was a shock for us. A man who had been a fitness freak and had never known a day’s illness had gone away just like that. But that’s fate, I guess. For me, it was a drastic change. Though thankfully I still had my work, I missed Ravi. The girls had to go back to their respective lives, and I was left all alone to fend for myself. I didn’t feel like coming back to an empty house, but neither could I concentrate on my work.
The initial few months were extremely trying. I was angry, hurt and felt cheated. I felt that life had been totally unfair. Why had I been left all alone? I would call up the girls three to four times a day, sometimes at odd hours and though initially, they made sure to speak to me, visit me as often as they could, gradually they got busy with their lives. I could sense that they were drifting away. They had never seen their mom being that clingy and dependent on anyone, and here I was, crying, howling, wallowing in self-pity all the time. Finally, one day, my older one, Megha, just gave it off to me. She told me that I had to get over Ravi’s death and get a hold of myself. I had to get back to pick up the threads of my life. I had to begin concentrating on my work and meeting people. To my excuse that all my friends had husbands and I didn’t want to socialize with couples, she looked at me and told me to stop making excuses. She suggested that I could begin by meeting my girlfriends whenever possible and take it forward from there.
Though initially, I felt that she just wanted to get rid of me; gradually, it all started making sense. Her advice made me see that what she was saying was right. My daughters, who had flown the nest, could not be expected to come back. I had always encouraged them to build their own lives, which they had done. I could not expect them to drop everything and come back to me. That would be terribly unfair. I needed to stop grieving and wallowing in self-pity. I listened to her advice and did what she had suggested.
I went back to focusing on my work and started meeting friends. It was difficult to meet couples, no doubt, but I realized that as I opened up and expressed my desire to meet, my friends started accommodating me. The ones we had been close to made sure that I was never alone in a gathering; they organized my pick-ups and drops whenever I had issues. My girlfriends met me whenever I wanted to. It was as though everyone around me had been just waiting for me to get back. And I realized that the more time I spent with them, the easier it became to get over my grief. Though Ravi continued to live on in my heart, I could gather up the courage to move on. It didn’t feel disloyal to do that. My friends, my daughters made me realize that he would have also wanted me to move on and find happiness.
Though I continued to be as committed to my work as before, I gradually started taking it a bit easy. Money, thanks to all our hard work and wise investments, was not a problem. I started taking time to travel with my friends, which exposed me to a whole new life altogether. Ravi had never liked travelling while I had always wanted to. But now I had the opportunity to travel the world, see the places that I had always wanted to. I became a part of this group of women who shared my love for travelling, and every six months or so, we would go visiting new and exotic places. It was exhilarating; it was thrilling.
As I became more and more engrossed in my life, my dependence on my girls reduced. Within a year, I had become a different person; in fact, a lot like my old self, self-reliant and independent in every sense of the word. I am sure that must have come as a big relief to them!!
Life moved on, and then Megha met Raghav. He, too, was a lawyer, and they had met while studying at the law school. They had kept in touch after graduating and, with time, had realized that they were in love and wanted to get married. Megha introduced him to me. She got him home, and we spent an evening together. I quite liked him and gave my green signal to the wedding. The two families met after that. Everything fell into place, and the two tied the knot. It was a lovely wedding. Though my girl didn’t want me to spend a lot on the wedding, I had my dreams, my vision of how I wanted my daughter to get married. So I ended up spending quite a bit.
The wedding was a beautiful affair. My daughter looked resplendent in her deep pink wedding dress. Raghav, in his cream coloured sherwani, was a perfect foil to her. I still remember how tears had welled up in my eyes when I had seen her walk on to the stage for the jaimala. How much I had missed Ravi!! He would have been so happy to see his girl looking so radiant and beautiful. But alas!! Maanvi sensing my feelings, had held my hand all through the ceremony. And then my girl had gone away to start her life in Geneva because that is where the two of them wanted to live. I visited her many times, especially once my grandchildren were born. It was a different life over there, and though the two of them suggested that I move to Geneva to be close to them, I refused to do that. I could be there for them whenever they needed me, but I couldn’t give up the life that I had now painstakingly built after Ravi. Had that been selfish on my part? I don’t think so.
Meanwhile, Maanvi found this really nice guy who she fell madly in love with. She shared the details of all that was happening in her life during one of her visits. This daughter of mine had always been the artistically inclined one and had chosen the canvas to give expression to her thoughts and feelings. He was also an artist, and they had hit it off from day one. Their feelings for each other had deepened with the passage of time. Soon they reached a stage where they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with each other. But the unconventional individuals that they were, they decided not to get married and just move in. Though a bit taken aback initially, I gradually accepted their decision as I felt it was up to them what they wanted to do with their lives. The important thing was that I wanted my daughter to be happy, which she was. Everything else was inconsequential for me.
Though the three of us lived in different cities, we remained connected. I came to realize that though my daughters didn’t live with me, they loved me a lot. They took a lot of pride in the way that I had handled myself. Though they had loved their father, they did not want their mother to not live her life after him. They constantly encouraged me to enjoy my life, do the things that I had always wanted to but had not been able to for some reason or the other. So pushed by them and out of my own accord, I went back to many of my hobbies and interests.
One of the things that I had always wanted to do but had never had the opportunity was to open up a book store cum a café. All my life, reading had been a passion for me. Irrespective of how busy my life kept me, I always found time for my books. Over the years, I had built a collection that occupied the pride of place in my home. And I loved my coffee. I had always dreamt of having a bookstore with a café that I could manage. I wanted a tiny little place, a booklover’s paradise.
As I started getting on in years, my girls started pushing me towards realizing this dream. Initially, I did not take them very seriously as the whole thing sounded quite impractical, but the idea kept growing on me, and then on my fifty-second birthday, I took a call which even for me was a bit much. It shook everyone around me. It was a bold decision that was unnerving, to say the least. I, too, was shaking as I announced my decision to an audience consisting of my family and friends.
I, who had spent all my life in Delhi, announced that I had decided to leave the city and move lock, stock and barrel to Goa. My announcement shocked everyone. Some thought I was doing it because of a man. Others thought I had lost it, that I had gone senile, but the decision had nothing to do with any of these reasons. It wasn’t a whim; it wasn’t a fancy. It was a well-thought-out decision. Though I was happy in my life, had all the material comforts, I wanted something else. I wanted to follow my passion and not just live to earn more money. My daughters were comfortable and happy in their lives. They didn’t want me to keep slogging. So then who was I doing it for? I had had enough of clients, agreements, lawsuits. I wanted a change, and that change could only come if I decided to do something different. Life was too short, and one had to make the most of what was there. So I decided that I no longer wished to pursue my profession but wanted to focus on my passion: my books and my bookstore with a café.
My girls, my friends were shocked. They tried everything they could to dissuade me. My girls couldn’t understand why I needed to move cities to pursue my passion. My friends couldn’t understand why I needed to let go of my profession, something which had given me so much in life and for which I had given up so much. They tried putting some sense in my head, [as they saw it], but I had made up my mind. The only concession I made was to explore the possibility of the book store in Delhi and not move to Goa. My friends promised to help me in every way.
So I wound up everything, gave up my senior partner’s cushy position, and started scouting around for a good location for my book cafe. I had a vision, a dream and I didn’t want to compromise on anything. But as I went about exploring the possibilities, a sad truth hit me. I figured that in the city in which I lived, fulfilling my dream would be next to impossible. Real estate in Delhi was far too expensive. I was heartbroken. I had already quit my work, so what was I going to do. My friends also had no answer.
And then this trip to Goa happened. My girlie group of travellers decided to go on holiday to Goa. I had been there earlier, but that had been with Ravi and the girls. But this time, things were different. I was with my friends, so it was a foot-loose, fancy-free kind of trip and a lot of fun. As I had become prone to doing, my trip consisted of visiting different bookshops in Goa. And it was during one such visit that the penny dropped. When I entered this particular bookshop, I realized that it was exactly like the one I had in my dreams. It had a café, it had a fantastic collection of books, and I loved it. And I knew that I, too, wanted something like that. I checked around, figured that I could follow my passion in Goa without having to file for bankruptcy. I discussed my idea with my friends, and though they had opposed me earlier now, they felt that this was probably the only way to make my dream come true. And so they all encouraged me to go for it.
I was in love with the place and loved the vibe, the pace of life in Goa. Somehow it just suited me and the mind space I was in. I had reached a stage where I now wanted to slow down and lead a laid back life, and I felt that Goa was just the place to do that. Though Megha was still a little apprehensive, Maanvi supported me. I think she could relate to this mad streak considering her temperament.
Moreover, by moving there, she and I knew I would be closer to her. Eventually, the two of us managed to convince Megha as well. It was a huge risk, but I was willing to take it.
Once the decision had been taken, I started winding up my affairs in the city I had lived all my life. I sold off my house, a few other assets and set about establishing my base in Goa. Maanvi and Raghav helped me in picking up a place that was to be my new home. We did it up in my favourite earthy colours, picking up pieces of furniture as we went along. I was like a child who had been given a project, and I put my heart and soul into making a success of it. My new home was an old Portuguese villa which I took time to restore. Besides my book collection, personal possessions, and a few of our favourite pieces, I did not take anything from my old house. I wanted to make a fresh start. Though my daughters supported me, they had a condition. They were very clear that they did not want me to live all alone in a new place. They told me that I would have to take my maid, who had been with us for years, with me to Goa. I agreed because, in any case, I did not want to take on the task of doing everything by myself or look for help in a new place. And as luck would have it, Maya was ready to move with me.
Six months on and I was ready to begin my new life. My new house was everything that I had always wanted in life. It wasn’t as though Ravi had ever stopped me doing anything in our house, but this was entirely my baby. Everything from the colour of the curtains to the furniture, to the colour of the walls, was my choice. And it had lots and lots of plants like my house in Delhi.
I began my new life. Initially, it was difficult to settle in. As we grow older, we don’t realize how set we become in our ways. We want things our way, and when we can’t have them, then it bothers us. So when I couldn’t get my favourite bread, my favourite brand of tea, it bothered me. But gradually, I settled in and started loving my new life. It was a refreshing change to wake up every day to the chirping of birds and the sight of the beautiful flowers and the garden. My bed was by a window that overlooked my beautiful garden. After years, I was on the ground floor and not on the fifteenth floor of a high rise. I was delighted.
Another big reason for my happy state was that along with the house, Raghav, Maanvi and I had been working on the bookshop idea as well. Since the house was pretty big, I decided to convert one of the outer rooms into a little book store. I did my bit of research, got in touch with publishers and got a small stock of books to begin with. The bookshop had a separate entrance, and with a grassy passage leading up to it, it was a cheerful place. There was a verandah in front of the room and my beautiful garden in front.
I cordoned off my house from it. Maya and I also converted one of the rooms into a kitchen to provide tea, coffee along with a few quick bites to the booklovers. I rekindled my passion for baking and decided to bake tea cakes for them. I even put out chairs in different nooks and corners, in the garden, in the verandah for people to sit and read. My daughter put up some of her artworks to do up the place. I wanted it to be a booklover’s paradise, and so did everything I could think of to make it just that. Maanvi and Raghav helped me spread word about it through social media, through word of mouth and through whatever way they could think of. They even designed some attractive fliers to circulate amongst people in the neighbourhood.
I realized that though I was a newcomer to the place, the local community was full of people who were friendly and supportive of my venture. My bookstore was small, it was a bit quaint, but it was a charming place. My idea had been to make a place where I would enjoy reading with a steaming cup of coffee by the side. And I loved the way it ultimately turned out to be.
Though initially there weren’t too many people visiting the store, soon the place picked up. As people got to know about it, they started visiting it. From the ones and the twos, the number started picking up until it reached a point where I had a steady stream of customers. The best part was that everyone who came to the store had the time to sit and chat and discuss the books, which I loved. Nobody ever seemed to be in a rush.
Though I had never been a businesswoman, I learnt how to handle the financials, and gradually I started earning from the store. It wasn’t much, but it gave me a huge sense of satisfaction. I had taken a gamble. Cut off my roots from a place where I had lived all my life to start afresh. From being a hot-shot lawyer to running a bookstore cum café, I had come a long way. But I had found happiness here also.
Being a friendly person, it didn’t take me long to connect with people and very soon, I had connected with my kind of women. We went out, we visited each other, and they all loved my store. Then, the father of one of my friends offered to help me run my little book cafe. He would come every day at 10.30 in the morning and stay till 7. He was a very well-read person and loved books just the way I did. He helped me get in touch with more publishers, which helped in building a good collection. We made a book club, started organizing book reading sessions and many events related to books. All this kept me busy, but more importantly, I was delighted.
It had been ten years since I had lost Ravi, and somewhere my daughters had started to feel that I needed someone to share my life with. They felt that despite all my friends, my bookstore, I needed someone to be there with me, for me. As I was growing older, they were getting more and more concerned about my living by myself. I could see it in the way they had started calling me, visiting me, something that they hadn’t done in years. And each time they visited me, they would broach the topic of finding someone to me. To my horror, Maanvi even put me on a dating app. It was only when I blew my top and refused to talk to her that she took me off it.
I, on my part, did not feel that way at all. I loved my life and space and did not want any complications, much less a man. But my daughters disagreed. They would keep pairing me with probable eligible men.
Somewhere I could get their concern and apprehension, but I just couldn’t do what they wanted me to. I could understand that they wanted someone who would be there with me since they couldn’t be, but I could not agree with their idea of who that someone should be. I did have many friends, some of whom were men and single, but I didn’t want a relationship.
But maybe fate wanted to be on my daughters’ side. One day as I was serving coffee to a customer, a man walked into the store. He was looking for a book that he hadn’t found in any of the other stores. A friend had recommended my store, and that was the reason why he was there. As I was always very chatty and friendly with all my customers, I struck a conversation with him which was to change the course of my life.
The man whose name was Amit had lived all his life in the US and had decided to re-locate to India a couple of years back. And as ordained by fate, had chosen to live in Goa. This being a common point between us sparked off many more conversations and then a friendship that now seems to be moving to something deeper and stronger. He and I have lots in common, books being just one of them.
Another common thing is that we both don’t want a relationship like a marriage. Amit has been married before and, like me, lost his spouse some years ago. His children live in the US and, like my daughters, want him to find someone to spend the rest of his life with. We like each other but are not sure about which way we want to go. We spend a lot of time together and care deeply for each other. We would be okay just to move in, which I know would be my house as I can’t leave my bookshop, no matter what. But we don’t know yet.
Life can take any turn. I can say that for sure! Mine has taken many! From a law firm to a book cafe, from Delhi to Goa, I have had quite a few twists and turns. So let’s see..
And yes, it was Amit who was with me that night when I turned heads in that restaurant, the day I chose to be the lady in red!!
[Story Title courtesy Sharmila Bhatia]