The painting hangs in the centre of the wall, above the television set. She always gets lost when she looks at it, whenever she visits her daughter’s house. Lost in the acres of green fields that go on forever and the dirt path that snakes its way through them. The trees lining the path remind her of the men in her village in India, how they would pick holay from the fields and sit under the trees, roasting them over a small fire. She used to watch them on the days when she was allowed to accompany her grandfather as he went to survey the fields. The memory of her grandfather, the crinkly feel of his beard, the loping way he walked, makes her smile. She thinks it impossible that he has been dead for decades. How can it be, when her memories of him are as sharp as something that happened yesterday? She sometimes feels like she has been asleep for sixty years, like most of her life has just swept past her.
Her grandfather owned a number of fields in the village. They grew wheat and rice, and had orchards of apples. In the middle of their land, he had built his family a house. Nothing lavish, they could hardly afford a haweli. But it was large enough to house the 15 members of their family – her uncles and their wives and children, her grandmother and the two servant boys. When her father had disappeared back in Bombay, her grandfather had come to the city to get her, along with her mother and older brother, and brought them back to the village.
She was fifteen when she came to the village. It was the first time she had ever come here, having been born in Bombay. She enjoyed the village, liked the openness of it all. The fields would spread out as far as the eye could see, filled with yellow poppies during the summer months. Their house was also big and airy. She felt like she could breathe here properly. In their cramped flat in Bombay, she was always stifling the urge to get out. The flat was humid and smelled of mildew. Not this place. Her grandfather’s house had a big, open veranda, and all the rooms were built around it. The rooms were only used for sleeping. Every other activity of the house would happen in the veranda. Her grandmother would sit on the charpai, peeling potatoes and hollering at the maid to sweep the dust from under the solitary tree that stood in the middle of the courtyard. Her cousins, boys and girls much younger than her, would chase after each other there, oblivious to their mother’s voice telling them to settle down.
One morning when she woke up, she could feel a flurry of activity around her that seemed unusual, even for a house as chaotic and noisy as hers. Her grandfather was shouting across the courtyard, his voice barely rising above the shrieks of Ahmed, a baby cousin of hers deep in the throes of a temper tantrum. Covering her head with her dupatta, she quickly went out into the veranda.
“Hurry up, boy! Take out the horse and carriage. We’re going to be late!” Her grandfather always had this air of impatience around him, like at any given moment he had a million things to do, a million places to be. Except it seemed that this time he really did have somewhere to be. She went up to him, grabbing a glass of water along the way.
“What’s going on? Where are you going?” She handed the glass to him. He took it without looking, distractedly spreading his hand on her head, his customary sign of affection.
“A train broke down near the station. It was heading up north. They say it will take a day to fix it,” he said. “I’m going up there; see if any of the passengers need a place to rest for the night.”
She felt a flurry of excitement. A train full of passengers, coming to their house. In a village where everybody knew everybody, strangers were always a welcome surprise. “Can I come, too?” She knew he would refuse, but it didn’t hurt to take a chance.
“Oh, not you too. I already had to refuse Ahmed.” That explained Ahmed’s crying, which had by this time settled into quiet hiccups. Her grandfather smiled at her. “You’re going to have to play host to a lot of people today,” he said in that usual teasing voice of his. “Go help your mother get the food ready.”
The sun was setting by the time her grandfather came back. She joined her cousins at the door, watching him make his way up the path. Behind his horse and carriage was a procession of people. They were all dressed up, like they had just come back from a wedding. Who goes on a train dressed like that, she wondered. She stared at each of them. There were small kids running ahead of the rest, and a handful of men and women. As they came closer, she suddenly caught the eye of the boy, walking slowly behind the men. He couldn’t have been much older than her. As he stared back at her, she felt her stomach flip. He had such kind eyes. There was an intensity to them as well, like he really saw the world, not merely watched it. She adjusted her dupatta and went back into the house.
After dinner had been served and all the people had had their share of lassi, everybody sat in the courtyard, beneath a sky littered with stars. The people were all members of one family. They were all part of a wedding party, someone told her. One of the men was the groom, and they were going to the village ahead of theirs for his wedding. She thought about the bride waiting up there, all dressed up. Would she think they were no longer coming?
The veranda was lit by gas lanterns, with some faces in silhouette and the others illuminated from the light. She could feel the boy’s eyes on her. It gave her a warm feeling, a feeling that was quite foreign to her. An older man, who she was told was the boy’s father, was telling a story to the children. She was sitting close to him, and could see that the train’s journey had tired him out. Once the story had ended, the children begged for another one. She could see that the man wanted to rest, so she offered to take his place and tell a story instead. Read a story, she corrected herself.
“Oh, you can read?” The man seemed delighted. He had crinkles around his eyes that deepened every time he smiled. She liked him already. “That is wonderful. You must read us all a story.”
She went in her room and got a children’s storybook, the only one she could find. The man patted on the floor cushion beside him and placed a lantern near her. She sat down, looking at all the faces that were in front of her. Her grandfather sat at the back, a lazy smile on his face. Her mother had her little cousin on her lap. She seemed proud of her. Her eyes now fell on the boy. The boy with the kind eyes. He smiled at her, a nervous, uncertain smile.
She smiled to herself and began to read.
They got married two years later.
The boy’s father and her grandfather had developed a deep friendship since that day since the train broke down. Visits to each other’s villages had become common and the two families became so close, they seemed to merge into one. The boy’s father had taken a liking to her ever since she had sat beside him and read a story. In time, he asked her grandfather for her hand for his boy and her grandfather readily accepted.
After getting married, the boy had taken her to the city. Eventually, when the British left and many of their relatives were moving to Pakistan, they too followed. She already had a son by then.
He built them a house in Karachi, in a neighbourhood filled mostly with empty plots and one or two houses. Eventually, the number of houses around theirs increased. In their home, filled with the laughter of their growing children, and eventually, their grandchildren, she would often remind him of that night in her village, when a broken down train and a story told beneath the stars had brought them together.
Now, she stares at the painting and marvels at how far her life has taken her. She hasn’t visited the village that the painting reminds her of in years. Not since her grandfather passed away and her uncles moved to the city, selling the fields and the house. She heard that the new people had torn down the house, now. Built a new one for their own family.
Her granddaughter brings her a cup of tea, sitting beside her. She wonders whether she ever told her grandchildren of the day she met their grandfather. It has been five years since he died. She wonders if her granddaughter remembers him as clearly as she remembers her own grandfather. Maybe he is only a story now in her granddaughter’s mind, a vague recollection. No matter, she thinks. After all, we’re all stories in the end.