Riaz khan dug with gusto into his dinner of shami kebab*, daal and karela. He looked at the vegetable on his plate and thought about his long-standing mental affiliation with it. Usually the image in his mind made him wince, with relief almost, like peeling off a scab; a mental catharsis for the scores of unrequited what-ifs that off and on gathered in his mind. He now collected the spice-infused, ridged green loops between a bit of roti to chew them down before finally vanquishing them, bitterness and all in his large intestine. The existential angst with which he juxtaposed himself body and soul on the bitter gourd now made him chuckle. His own Kharoos Karela avatar had probably been much more caustic than the enterprising vine had ever itself aspired to be! He laughed aloud at the imagery, almost choking on his food. Jasmina looked at her brother benignly. She liked this change that had come over her usually melancholy sibling. He was happier, healthier and talkative; well, not as much as she would have liked but still, there was much more he offered now besides his monosyllabic grunts. She snorted in good cheer, puffing out her chest like a hen fluffing up with maternal compassion before sitting back down on her eggs. Mariam gamely grinned back at both of them.
“Come, I want to show you something”, said Riaz Khan wheeling himself towards his bedroom window. He did that quite often now, without buckling under the creaky protestations of his muscles. Besides everything else that Mariam had been doing for him, she had also started him on an intensive physiotherapy regimen. What he used to grudgingly subject himself to once or twice a week before, he now looked forward to every day, sometimes twice a day. Over the last three months, his triceps had become stronger and he could now lift himself off the bed and into the wheelchair on his own. The first time he performed this feat, he was overwhelmed, feeling his throat tighten with emotion. Never being one to check into the water works department, and not intending to start then, he had swallowed hard. But it had been tough this time, calling on his self control. This simple act of independence was a rare step forward for his sluggish, time-battered body. Usually the milestones he racked up drove him slipping and sliding ever closer to the ultimate end. That day he’d actually felt brave and hopeful.
“What is it?”, asked a curious Mariam, peering at the tree outside the window.
“Look to where I’m pointing, between those two branches … higher up.. do you see them?”
“Is that a … are those bulbuls?”
Riaz Khan nodded, smiling at her. They both watched as the two birds took turns singing to each other, encircled in the rustling arms of the Gulmohar tree. Riaz Khan had shared his secret with Mariam. He had done it on the spur of the moment; unthinkingly. He was not usually one to act impulsively. He believed that the best decisions were made after a generous labour of thought and internal dialogue. But today, still on the adrenaline high of having, self-sufficiently hoisted himself off the bed and into his wheelchair, he had gone with the flow; been spontaneous. He would of course later in a quiet moment, reflect on this episode to see if he still felt good about it or whether he wanted to kick himself for his impulsiveness. The fact that he couldn’t, even if he was inclined to do the latter was one of those ironic jabs of nature conspiring with the language of his thoughts that made him sometimes groan and at other times laugh uncontrollably. Today, his face creased into a wide grin as he glanced at Mariam and then back at the enchantment of the scene outside.
That night, while he was in bed, Mariam had come in to ask him if he wanted to use the toilet. He didn’t; but he also realized with an elation that if he did need to go, he could could get himself there on his own. He had grinned at the thought and she had smiled back.
He wondered how it would be if she tucked him in … tucked herself in with him. He shifted his position, physically trying to place these strange new thooghts in some perspective. Was he falling in love with his carer? Transference the shrinks called that state of love. He looked at Mariam, embarrassed by the machinations of his body and his heart. He focused on her unibrow, trying to poke a hole in the gaily bobbing balloon of his feelings. Immediately he felt remorse – that was unkind. And ineffective. He had now also become fond of the lusty sprouting of hair that weaved its robust, unbroken path across her forehead. Riaz Khan stayed awake for most of that night imagining a hundred different scenarios with Mariam at their front and center. In many of them, Jasmina too jostled her way in; these he steadfastly removed from the queue. By the morning, he was feeling oddly energised and determined.
“Marriage?! Are you mad Riaz Khan?” said a startled Jasmina when he had told her what was on his mind.
“She’s the caregiver; the domestic. You’re imagining yourself to be in love with her. Infatuation is what it is. Don’t you go and tell her of any of these wild fancies of yours, you’ll scare the woman away”.
“And don’t forget that she’s Christian”, Jasmina added forebodingly, delivering what seemed to her, the final nail in the coffin that she had quickly mustered up for the inauspicious zombies of love that her brother had resurrected overnight.
The end of that summer came quickly and cleanly. Jasmina called Yousuf Alves and asked him to resume his old position. In the wake of his sister fitting in so well at Bait-ul-Muskaan and he himself finding another client, Yousuf had let the status quo prevail for the past six months. Mariam had filled in admirably, Madam Jasmina added, but it was not seemly for a woman to be caring for a man on a long term basis. It was best if he returned or found an appropriate replacement.
A week after Riaz Khan had identified and given a name to the fluttering in his heart, and three days since he had spoken to his sister of what he intended to do about it, Mariam was gone. Riaz Khan did not protest. Nor did he ask to see Mariam one last time before she left Bait-ul-Muskaan. Yousaf returned and settled into Riaz Khan’s routine like a well worn shoe. Together they again treaded the faded old paths of the life that had been Riaz Khan’s for the last twenty years.
Riaz Khan sat in his wheelchair looking out of the window in his room. The Gulmohar had already begun to mottle and shed its summer foliage. The bulbuls’ nest that usually lay screened, secret and full of life, now lay bare and exposed to the chill winter winds. The birds too had forsaken the desolation of their surroundings and flown away to warmer climes. Riaz Khan looked at the empty nest waiting for some emotion, any emotion to overtake him; for some sentiment from the slew of feelings that had poured over him so readily over the last few months: nostalgia, hope, sadness, desperation even. There was nothing.
But he lingered, and even as he looked at the joyless scene outside, he felt the faintest glimmer of something stirring, something silvery around the greyness that sat in his heart: the birds … they’d be back in a few months to renew, rebuild and revel in the bounties of summer, and the tree would be full of birdsong once again.
Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/27/bulbuls-nest-part-one/
Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/28/bulbuls-nest-part-two/
* Shami Kebab: A round patty of minced lamb and lentils cooked in a tandoor; often served with a small salad with a yoghurt and mint dressing.