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Flight of a Foreign Bird (Personal Essay)

When does a fledgling become a bird? When it leaves the nest.

That’s when the young one realizes what strength lies wrapped in her wings and how far she can fly if she ventures to leave the safe confines. It’s a flight of faith, which I took, in the year 1991.

Fresh out of college, with a dream that few dared to have in that time, I stepped out of home for the first time. To the university of Kerala to do my Masters in Journalism.

The university was in my home state only, just an overnight journey away, but to my parents it must have felt like the other end of the planet. Trust people around to make things worse with their remarks that are coated in concern but are intended to prick.

How much guts it took for my parents to cut through their snide statements and allow me to fly, I have no clue, but it must have taken oodles of heart for my mother to see me off at the railway station that wet evening. Even in the midst of my eagerness to break out of the cocoon and explore the world, I didn’t miss to see the rising tide in my mother’s eyes. It was hard for me to believe that mothers cried when their daughters went out to learn, that too not far from their vicinity. I had stupidly thought that tearful farewells were a tradition reserved for scenes after their wedding.

But no.

I learnt a few new things about motherhood that evening as the train pulled out of the platform and I watched my parents wave till the train curved its course.

The heart of a mother aches every time the child steps out and leaves her protected precincts; it beats hard in secret fear about her wellness and safety even if it meant staying out of sight for an hour; it felt empty until she heard the flap of the young wings back at the doorstep.

After that first time, I don’t remember seeing my mother’s moistened eyes many times at the see-off. She kept an unmistakably stoic exterior. She had probably reconciled to the indomitable reality of life.

Children leave.

Parents retire.

Distances become elastic.

Time and space define relationships. To be tossed by these shifting currents is not the mark of a mature mind.

Perhaps, she was steeling herself up for the inevitable - the day of my marriage when my exit from their lives will be formally complete.

The 90s were a time when I meandered through the rough and tumbles of life before I was finally docked in matrimony in 1998. The moment of farewells returned, but the roles reversed this time.

As I left for a foreign country with a man I barely knew in the few days of marriage, I felt a sharp tug at my heart that came from a sudden realization about the void that would soon set into in my parents’ life. It was a profound realization. For the first time it struck me that I wouldn’t probably miss them half as much as they would miss me. I was embarking on a new journey, with so much to look forward to, but what was I leaving them with?

I am not sure why this thought hadn’t occurred to me in the many departures before my first flight to the Gulf.

In the months that followed, I wept bitterly in my new home thinking of their loneliness. I still remember the helpless look my husband wore as I melted down. He must have mistaken it as the emotions of a daughter missing her parents. For some reason, I didn't mind to clarify it.

I wondered how my parents must be getting on with the idea of me living so far that a letter took fifteen days to reach and we could speak only for a few minutes once in a week? What did they do in the interim? Feel my absence with thought and words? Or feel my presence with their spirit?

It is probably in that period that I installed the virtue of empathy deeply into my psyche and learnt to see life through other people's eyes.

Farewells at the airport were never the same after that.

Every time I left home, I would sag under the guilt of leaving my father and my mother behind to live my own life. It was absurd to think I was responsible for their loneliness, but there was no way I could shake it off. As the flight soared over the verdant landscape and swerved towards the Arabian sea, I thought of a pair of human beings who would return to an empty home again. I reckoned what will keep them ticking for a year now is reliving moments of my stay and looking forward to my next round of homecoming.

Year after year, I departed, saddled with a sadness that only increased with time, for they were growing old. Time was on the ebb for them. It was a foreboding thought that nagged my mind every time I bade them goodbye.

And then, one day in 2016, my father left. Without notice. He was relieved of his loneliness and of all that kept him tethered to this chimerical world, but it made my mother doubly alone and rudderless.

I could never decipher, not till date, if I mourned my father’s demise more or my mother’s solitude. The pain that I felt the day I left her behind as she fought her grief hasn’t subsided yet. It is a burden I will carry forever.

The pandemic and the shackles it has placed on our lives have only amplified that ache. It continues to fester silently in various parts of my soul. Sometimes it escapes the mental turf and manifests in my body as a quiet sniffle and a feeble shudder. And sometimes it projects itself as disconcerting dreams.

How queer and complex are human circumstances! The map of our lives is laid out here – in this desert land. We are like tumbleweeds. It is here that we make a living and willy nilly survive.

My mother, on the other hand, is a grand old oak that can’t be uprooted from where she stands.

Between us, there is a huge chasm of physical space that I try to bridge with the buttons on my smart gadgets. At least, now I don’t live in an age of fortnight-old letters and short calls from public booths. In a world of big woes, these are small consolations that keep me hopping, from one day to the next.

(Dedicated to all parents and children, of all ages, who are separated by the oddities of life. If my writings touch a chord, please share the link to anyone you think will like it. Thank you.)

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