They were a family of thirteen and two dogs living under one roof in a metro city and she hated it. It felt less like home and more like a motel. It was crowded and there was never a moment of peace. Her grandfather had moved to this city from a small village in Gujarat when he was a teenager. He had witnessed how most of the families moved away from each other for the sake of convenience and out grew individually. Slowly their relationships were just occasional obligations, hence he vowed that his family will always live under a single roof, no matter what came the circumstance. Her grandfather and grandmother had two sons and they were married too. One of them had two children and other one had three. Soon they even adopted a dog who seemed to share her grandfather's philosophy because one day he brought a new companion to their door. Not much later, grandfather's sister widowed and moved in with them along with her step daughter. It had not mattered to her as a child as it was all fun and game. All five kids slept on the same bed but as she grew up she wanted more space for herself. She didn't like sharing a bar of chocolate with her four siblings and one greedy dog who loved chocolates too. She didn't like her clothes being stolen by her cousin sisters. She didn't like the fact that it was hard to ever find a moment to have a complete heart-to-heart conversation with her mother. She didn't want to be interrupted thousands of time while she was painting. She wanted a room for herself and not just a corner. She wanted to wake up to quiet mornings and not with people all over the place. She wanted to get friends home and not feel embarrassed. She wanted less people around. Her little annoyances started building up to exasperation.
Very soon the disdain in her voice and the distance in her attitude could not be ignored. She would often shout at her younger siblings and be insolent to elders. She'd be bitter every now and then. When her elder sister moved out for college she had cried hard, not for potentially missing her but for the longing of going out of this place along with her. All the time in the world that she could get away from home were always welcomed in her life. She'd leave for school early and take the longest route back home. Her painting classes were a solace. She'd stay there a little late, talk to her teacher after every one was gone. Her painting teacher was a young woman who lived alone and to her it was like living a dream. Her regular stay backs created a bond between them which could be labelled as friendship. She would learn nuances and perfect her strokes. Sometimes, she would accept a cup of tea and share her dreams. Conversations lengthened and deepened with time and her feeling of smother was as evident to her teacher as her name. Amongst other things, there was always a hint of asphyxia.
"Why couldn't my aunty keep her morning prayers to herself? Why does she feel the need of involving all of us by waking us up and killing our sweet morning dreams?"
"Why my daadi needs to reiterate the same story of when she walked 6 kilometers just to meet my grandfather because she had worn the saree he had gifted her?"
"How do I stop my little cousin from iteratively approaching me with his math's homework?"
"I would buy a bigger easel but my corner is too small."
"How do I make my bua-daadi's step daughter fold my clothes when she folds hers?"
There were always tiny or not-so-tiny complaints about the house or the people living in it. The clock had just chimed five that evening when one of her friends rang the doorbell. The door was opened by the youngest kid of the house,
"Who are you? What are you selling?"
"I'm here to pick up your sister."
And he burst into laughter at her face.
"She's too fat for you to pick her up."
Before anything else could happen, the dogs ran towards the door but before the dogs could reach the door, they were hailed in with the smell of food and her daadi calling their names out.
"Happening house!" Her friend exclaimed.
She could sense ridicule in her voice.
"Yeah! You get used to it after a while."
"Or you don't!" Her friend pointed towards her sister snooping around her wardrobe.
"Get out of here!" She shouted at her sister and felt defeated in the moment.
When they reached their painting class, she was fuming. The whole time there, she was reliving the uncivilised hell her friend had visited on her account. She had to stay back to finish the class as she was unusually slow that day. Also, she was in no rush to finish and go back. Her teacher sensed her frustration and after everyone left, offered her a cup of tea which she eagerly accepted. As she started sipping the tea, she poured out all her pain.
"If my grandfather thinks that living together will keep the family close, he is seriously mistaken. It's bound to create troubles. It's like too many hens in a cage. My little sister enjoys daadi's stories for now, wait till she's hearing it for the thousandth time. It just keeps getting more dramatic and it's cute that my little cousin brother eats away everyone's secret stash of chocolates until you badly want one in the middle of the night and cannot find any because he ate it all. You fight your sisters to kick them out of your bed only to find the dogs snuggling against you in the morning. My elder sister must be so glad she's finally gone out of this jungle. I can't wait to go too."
She emptied her thoughts before she left and drained off everything she could. She crashed over to sleep as soon as she got back home. She suddenly got up hearing excited squeals which were much louder than usual. She reached the lobby to find her elder sister standing there amidst everyone. Dadaji excitedly exclaimed,
"Add more 'elaichi' to my tea today, as my 'Khushboo' is home." Ultimately laughing at his own joke.
She approached her sister and hugged her from behind.
"I'm not going to school as long as you're here because you're going to tell me all your college stories."
"Well, that's a good thing. Anyways I'm here only for a day so you won't miss out on much of your school."
"Aww no! That's unfair." She was sad.
"I can't lose much of my attendance in college." Her sister explained.
As soon as people scattered away from her sister, she dragged her to her bed,
"What's it like to not live in a jungle?"
Sisters continued their chat for hours even though someone or other kept interrupting them every few minutes. She would push everyone away.
"It's bad manners to interfere when elders are talking."
She shooed away her younger sisters who had come in with a hope of exchanging clothes with their elder sister.
"I will shoot this dog one day, I swear."
"Daadi how many sweets will you feed her? We're all going to die of diabetes!"
"She's my sister. Don't interrupt us. Anyway, you wouldn't understand, since you don't have one!"
She brutally turned away her bua-daadi's step-daughter who was nothing but a stranger to her.
She wanted to keep her sister for herself. Her sister listened to all the questions she asked with eyes that glimmered of dreams and told her all the stories. How they made a Maggi sandwich for a friend's birthday, how they pranked the hostel guard, their shopping discoveries and places they could go when she visits.
The next day, her sister was gone but she felt better. Near future had hope of a better life than now. She walked into the painting class a little late. Teacher announced,
"I have set up a contest for the class. It goes like this. Today, you can choose fifteen colours to fill your colour palette. It could be any fifteen colours of your choice and make a painting using them. Every passing day, you'll keep dropping one colour from the palette and make a painting from what's left. The contest will run for fifteen days, until you have no more colours to use. You'll be judged based on the last five paintings you have made. May the best one win."
It was an interesting challenge. Everyone in the class was excited. First few days were easy. But it started getting more challenging with every passing day and on day ten, it became a real trial to make a painting from just five colours. She was working late that night on her painting when her mother came in and handed her a letter,
"Your sister sent this for you from college. It arrived today evening and I had completely forgotten about it until now."
"Wow. She wrote to me? She's such a weirdo. Who writes nowadays?" She said taking the letter.
"Good night my baby. Don't stay up till late."
"Don't worry. I'm almost done with this. Good night maa."
The letter read,
"Dear baby sister,
I hope this finds you in a good mood. God knows why, but that is rare these days. You've always had a bad temper. It does make you do good things sometimes, like the day when you punched that guy who'd keep staring at me from across the road. You barely reached his chin but that didn't stop you. You've also been very focused. When something's on your mind, you don't leave space for anything else to percolate. My last visit home, I saw that our traffic signal like home has taken over all your thoughts. It seems, all you can hear are the horns and signals and you cannot avoid being fed up of that noise. Your vision of our family has become tubular and if I or anyone else for that matter offered you a wider scenario it would remain invisible to you. You need to discover or rediscover it for yourself. So, it's my request that for few days be a spectator. Do not allow yourself to be affected by the chaos around you. If it takes imagining that you're not a part of this family, then let that be. But do it.
Love and hugs
P.S. Now you know why I wrote to you, else you would've argued and never let me finish."
She closed the letter and didn't know how to make sense out of it. She finished her painting and surrendered to bed. She couldn't sleep though. Her sister is crazy. She doesn't have a temper and her house is a traffic signal. They are a bunch of people with no civic sense and no respect for privacy. But it's not a bad idea alienating herself from the hulla. Spectator or not, at least she'd be more at peace. She focused on her paintings for next couple of days. The challenge was getting tougher and she had to brainstorm hard to find inspiration to paint using just three colours. She was sitting in her bed that Sunday afternoon when she overheard her daadi and sister giggling. Her daadi was retelling the story,
"I still remember the colour of the saree, it was red. But not the red of a tomato, it was the red of a sunset."
She rolled her eyes and thought how terrible it must be for her sister to bear these stories again and again. But she was surprised to hear,
"Daadi, you sound like someone in love!" Her sister teased grandmother.
"Dhatt. We didn't even know these things back then." She could hear her daadi blushing.
"You didn't know doesn't mean you didn't love." Her sister continued to giggle and she couldn't help but smile.
It was like girlfriends talking about their boy crushes. Daadi went on telling how strong dadaji's voice was in their bygone era in the same smitten kitten way that she told the story. It was surprising how much her sister and daadi were enjoying their conversation. Maybe her sister was right, maybe her vision had become tubular.
She went in with her painting the next day and she was quite impressed with herself. But more than that she was happy crossing the hurdle and she was worried for the next one. How could she make a painting with just two colours?
"It's no fun working in such restrictions. They challenge you, but it's not enjoyable." She told her teacher.
"But I thought you liked working with less colours." Her teacher said nonchalantly.
"What gave you that impression? I love colours." She was taken aback.
"You gave me that impression. Just like so many people around you were noise to you, I thought too many colours other than the ones you love would be noise too. If you can't see the beauty which so many people bring to your life, why would you appreciate unnecessary colours? I thought you were a monochrome person or at least you wanted to be."
She didn't have a reply. She was the first person to leave that day and came to her bed with thoughts all over her mind. She laid there thinking, has she overlooked the subtle or pronounced beauty in her chaotic life. All the faces of people in her family kept moving around her mind. She remembered how her elder sister would see her wearing her clothes and smile, how the greedy dog had not left her side for weeks when her leg got fractured, how her aunty will always be the first to pray for them whether it was her exam or her cousins, how her mother would make the favourite dinner for every child of the family once a week, how her bua-daadi's step-daughter had always tried to be her sister only to be turned down. She had been neglecting the colours of unconditional love, dedication, sacrifice, selflessness, commitments and innocence. What about peace? She questioned herself.
"What are you doing?"
She asked her sister who was sneaking around her bookshelf and had derailed her chain of thoughts.
"Shhh. I'm hiding chocolates for our naughty little brother."
"You mean. You are hiding chocolates from him."
"That's what he thinks! I hide it for him. When he discovers these, just look at how he'll dance shaking his belly and butt. It's so funny. Don't tell him I hid these, okay?" Her sister sneaked out.
She was left with awe and bewilderment. Did she really need to find any more peace? Contentment and smile on their faces was the peace she could never find alone. She got up with a smile and decided,
"I'm not going in with a painting of just two colours tomorrow. I have a palette full of colours. My beautiful palette and I'm going to put them all in my life. I'm not missing out on any of them."
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