Sunday, January 4, 2004

When less can be more
Taru Bahl

Extremely impatient, Raghav was a man in a hurry. He could not function without having a dozen engagements packed back-to-back in his little black diary. He flew into fits of rage if he did not find his assistants at his beck and expected his home to work with clockwork precision. He gave no notice to his wife Reena, of his daily round of cocktails and dinners, important for networking. Fortunately for him, she was a quiet sort who did not question his authority. Married when she was barely 18, he had moulded her his way. She often found herself a misfit in his husband’s circle. She had no tales of conquest to recount or dwell on the fascinating ways in which she used up his millions. Instead, she used her vacant hours by reading voraciously and converting her garden into a creative refuge. She spent hours tending to plants and experimenting with new variations.

The heightened excitement which her socialite friends experienced when they bought a ruby- encrusted diamond set or when they met Malaika Arora at a fashion show was similar to the emotions that gripped her when she met her widowed father in his quaint cottage in the upper reaches of Himachal. The fresh mountain air, apple-laden trees, winding roads, meandering pathways and open stretches of clear blue skies were priceless sights. Seeing her father single-handed tend to his apple orchards with his pulse on what was happening, were no less an achievement than the boardroom conquests of her husband and his jargon-filled, often intimidating, presentations. Her small-town upbringing and middle class values taught her the value of not making her happiness dependent on factors extraneous to her. Which is why, for her, the joy experienced at seeing her child paint an exotic sunflower or her father post results of a good crop season, was far more delicious and long- lasting than what Raghav felt after winning clients.

She felt sorry for him. Working on assignments, she had seen him pace the room for weeks at end, puffing endlessly at cigarettes, barking incessant orders into the many phone lines he had 24-hour access to. In-between, he rushed for appointments, squeezing in nerve-racking brainstorming sessions with colleagues who looked ready to drop dead. When the deal came through the team’s celebration over drinks excluded spouses and families. Before you knew it, this high was replaced with a series of tension-filled days working on the next project.

Raghav did not believe in indulging in the luxury of being occasionally laidback, recouping energies by doing ‘silly’ routine things like spending an afternoon with no agenda or enjoying the garden she had painstakingly landscaped. For him, life was a serious merry-go-round, with no fun, no time to pause and certainly no time to give those who made his life comfortable, a pat on the back. The time he specifically allocated for family was more like an appointment made by his secretary. Little wonder then that though they spent a lot of time together, they were far from each other in thoughts and degree of affections.

Their only child Sanya, was right from her childhood onwards scared of her father. She clammed up the moment he came close, shrinking from body contact. Her animated chattering ceased the instant he treaded harshly into her physical domain. A gentle and artistic child, she was averse to loud voices and boorish behaviour. The house, large though it was, reverberated with Raghav’s frenzied monotone, debarring others from saying anything he disagreed with. Without doing anything directly to terrorise her, his mannerisms converted fear into a chasm which became more pronounced after she went to the hostel. Though initially Reena had found the severing from the umbilical cord painful, she was glad that she took the decision to send Sanya away. She bloomed into a sensitive artist with a mind of her own and the bonding between mother and daughter transcended any barriers that distance could impose.

Whenever she needed respite, she would go and spend a few days with her father. Seeing him work filled her with pride. With just one man Friday and a team of contract labour hired seasonally, he ran a lucrative business in his post-retirement years. Successful and content, his target was to have the orchard making enough money to meet running expenses and take care of his frugal needs. He had trade information on his fingertips and was brimming with innovative ideas. He loved the feeling of expansiveness which came with being close to nature and abhorred structured routines.

Unlike his son-in-law, who he felt was a slave to technology, electronic gizmos served only a functional purpose in his life. He did not allow himself to get overawed by them. Technology was meant to act as an enabler and not dictate his very existence. He set his own agenda. At 75, he was ramrod straight, mentally agile and fit as a fiddle. He had seen Raghav going berserk when Internet connectivity in his office was poor or his handset was giving him trouble. Holding those around him responsible for the glitches and losses resulting thereof, Raghav attached an unreal physical and financial value to his time.

In spite of people adapting to him in every possible way, Raghav perpetually complained of shortcomings. He was unaware of the contribution of those on whom he was dependent. Which is why when his faithful secretary of 20 years left him due to personal commitments and his wife chose to spend more time with her ailing father, he felt his world was becoming topsy-turvy. Unhinged, he tried reaching out to his child for moral support but drew a blank there as well. It was a bolt out of the blue because he had not realised that his world could get shattered the moment key people in his life withdrew support. He found himself unable to make simple appointments on the phone, perform transactions in the bank, get his servants to do his bidding and catch his forty winks without the comforting presence of his wife by his side. It was as if his heartbeat had come to a stand still. Panicking, he rushed to his father-in-law’s town. Earlier he had hated coming there simply because it was not connected by air.

Taking that six-hour ride uphill made him wonder why he had not done this before. For the first time, he looked at the wonder around him. By the time he reached home, he could comprehend the gist of his wife’s oft-repeated line, thoda hai, thode ki zaroorat hai. All these years he had failed to hold on to what he had and blindly chased all that he did not have and did not need. He hoped it was not too late to make amends.