The Open Dosa

Consuming the Ordinary Differently

Keeping Secrets

This essay by Saraswathi Ram Bahadur was awarded the Special Mention for the SJU Prize for the Personal Essay 2024 by judge Amulya Shruthi. The theme for the contest was Keeping Secrets.

October 2017, a month that was hard for my family. The pillar of this joint family, my grandfather, was really ill. He had been sick for a while now, but this time he was admitted to the hospital. The heavy smoking really took a toll on his life. My family living in Bangalore were 2,463km away from home. I can’t really think of any moments I ever spent with him. Literally none. I was born and brought up in Bangalore under the care and guidance of my guardian who was and still is the dearest to me. He was like a grandpa – no blood relation but connected by heart. I shared a really strong bond with him. He is the reason I have a good life and good education. All my cherishable, lovely, sad, happy moments—name it all—have all been with my guardian, unkya. I didn’t even know the names of my grandparents until I was 11 years old, which was when I saw daddy’s passport application form. He still hasn’t gotten the passport. I didn’t really know our language well (my accent still sucks). It was hard for me to communicate with my grandparents even via phone. They didn’t understand Hindi. Even though I understood my language Nepali well enough, I didn’t know how to reciprocate. I still have this insecurity of speaking my language because my parents used to always laugh or give a sly smile whenever I tried to speak. That really still is inside me and I don’t really speak in Nepali with them at least, because I just can’t. I am more comfortable speaking in Nepali with friends, but I still ask them whether my accent is fine or not, because of the insecurity.

I have met my grandfather – hajur ba maybe around 3 times. Once when I was newly born, the next when my sister was newly born and the last when I went to Nepal during summer vacation in 4th grade. I can’t remember any sort of interaction I had with him. I just remember one in particular. Most of my family was outside when he called out to me – “ nani euto cigarette deu na malai” I understood what he said but didn’t know where to get him a cigarette from. I looked at my cousins and they said that it’s ok, he doesn’t need another one. But hajur ba kept saying the same thing with hand gestures. I stood there in confusion as my aunt brought a cigarette from inside. Everyone was surprised that he recognised me because hajur ba suffered from amnesia where he would not remember certain people, let alone me who was only a guest for a few days in a home that never really was or is mine. No one likes my nuclear family. Everyone is jealous that we have unkya and I’m living and studying in Bangalore. There is a feeling inside all the time whenever I’m at my so-called home and family that I don’t belong here. It’s like my nuclear family are guests they wait for, just to get the gifts, clothes or food, my parents like to take home for everyone. Sometimes I just ponder about what a real family is. A family where everyone is ready to do anything for each other. Why is it only my parents? No one offers help even when we stand by them when they are in need. Why is it that to talk to us they need to wait for something they need? Otherwise they don’t care about our existence.

Hajur ba and hajur aama, just the both of them loved everyone. I’d say that they loved my family the most because we are nice people. Not to praise myself, but it is the truth. They were really fond of us. Everytime we went they’d come sit by us and just lovingly pat their hand on my head. I would awkwardly smile because I would not know what to say, except for joining my hands and saying “namaste” timidly. It was stuck in my head that I will be made fun of or people will be rather surprised at my Nepali and I didn’t want that. No thank you. I don’t want anyone to act like I’m some foreigner speaking Nepali so I just sit there silent and smile awkwardly. Hajur aama would take my hands and look at me emotionally and say – “ aba gaye pachhi kahile aunchao?” (after you leave this time when will you come back?) I would utter “chitto ” ( soon) and she would look at me with so much love in her eyes that I could not reciprocate. I would sit there and awkwardly smile as my sister in law would prepare dinner.

When I heard the news of hajur ba being very sick I was worried. I had assumptions that these few days would be his last and so did my parents. Daddy wanted to go and take care of hajur ba while he was admitted in the hospital. Hajur ba said that he wanted to meet him before he died. Daddy told unkya about hajur ba and he immediately booked the flight tickets to Kathmandu. He was happy that he would get to see hajur ba. The trip to the airport would be the first time for him. He had never seen an airport before, let alone travelling by air was a completely new experience for him. He was really careful about all his documents and important papers he’d need to carry to travel without a passport. I remember him being really smiley and nervous (in a good way though) to be able to live this experience. He packed his clothes in a very giant trekking bag the night before. The next afternoon after having lunch he was ready to leave. I wished him a safe and happy journey.

One of his work friends, late uncle Babu, picked daddy up for the airport in his scooty. Daddy is short, he looked like a school boy wearing the huge bag and a simple new blue colour polo neck and trousers. He sat at the back and the scooty rushed into the traffic . My eyes watched until they were out of sight.

The days without my dad felt incomplete. Unkya kept checking upon hajur ba’s health. It was getting better but very slowly. There were times when hajur ba’s BP would fluctuate a lot. There were times he refused to eat. Daddy would send photos through IMO or Messenger to my mom. I saw how frail and weak hajur ba looked. He wasn’t in a state of speaking. This went on for 2 weeks until hajur ba had a stroke. The doctors said that they wouldn’t be able to do much. Daddy on call with mummy said – “Timi haru aaijao. Ba dherai bachnu hunna.”( you all come. Dad won’t live long). I was very unhappy. I told unkya. He called up daddy and asked. The next thing he did was book our flight tickets for Kathmandu, scheduled for two days later.Tickets for my mom, my sister – Ar and I. I was very clueless at that point in time. I didn’t know what emotion to feel – the sadness and fear of hajur ba dying, the stress of missing school, the pain of leaving unkya alone and going, the excitement and nervousness of going to the airport and flying to Kathmandu. The next day my dad’s two brothers came home because they were going to fly with us. Unkya booked tickets for both of them as well. I remember him talking to the boss of my uncles regarding the tickets and documents needed. Since they both had a passport it wouldn’t be a problem, but my mom A and i didnt own passports. Unkya explained to me the exact things I need to say and show at the counter before boarding and that it will all be fine.

It was all sorted but the younger uncle wasn’t having it. When we were in our room, he uttered such hurtful words. “ Afno aama morne bela ba na gayeki maanche ahile hamro ba morda kina jaanu parichha ra?” -(you couldn’t even go when your mother was dying, why do you have to come when my father is dying?) At that very moment, I wanted to fight back. My mom was deeply hurt and saddened. It is a very bad thing to say in this situation. As much as I wanted to shout at him, I couldn’t. I was just a 13-year-old who should not raise her voice when it comes to elders. He literally just said that, grabbed his stuff, and left. My mom stood there with teary eyes and me watching that mean man walk down with anger in my eyes.

The next day we were all ready to go. My mom was trying to forget about what was said the day before. He didn’t even apologise, not at all. He just showed up the next day with his suitcases and the other uncle. After all unkya’s car and driver would only take him to the airport for free.

Illustration: Anam Khaleel

When we were leaving, Unkya had tears in his eyes. He cried bitterly to us as he said go safe and call me when you reach the airport. I was very confused.The amount of grief I felt when unkya was crying as we were leaving, I was concerned. There was a sense of strangeness when he was crying. He was so in pain as if we were leaving forever or something happened. But as much as I knew there was nothing to be worried or cry so much about. I was really sad about how he cried and gave us tight hugs. That was the only thing that lingered in my brain during the whole drive. The drive was smooth just like the awkwardness in the car. There were no words uttered. Understandable for my mom who had motion sickness, but what about my uncles? It felt really awkward. It felt like I was in a car amongst strangers. There was strangeness in every kilometre we covered from Richmond Circle to Kempegowda International Airport. My mom did throw up once. I would not traumatise you by describing the scene, yes. Let’s continue. I was only thinking about what unkya would be doing. Wondering who would have served him lunch. As I was thinking, we reached the airport. The airport was huge. It looked like a very rich people place. I mean it is.

We were supposed to check in our luggage and submit documents. As we stood in the queue, I asked uncle to call unkya and inform him. We did and unkya told all of us to have a safe journey and make sure to call him when we reached the Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu. He assured me that the process will not be that difficult when they are checking the three of our documents. I, being the oldest, had to take care of the family that I was taking home, said unkya.

The process like he said wasnt intense, it wasn’t that deep. I just had to answer simple questions and we were let in. My uncles left us and went ahead like they absolutely knew where they were going. They obviously got through early because they were passport holders, unlike us. I saw them looking at us from across the security checking. It was like they were mocking us for being behind. Once we finished and walked towards them they were sulking. All we did was stay silent. We finally got our boarding passes and got onto the flight after looking for the gate numbers. Looking for the gate numbers was annoying because of the uncles. They kept on saying that the gate is the other way when the gate was in the direction I was telling them to follow.

Anyways, the 4 hr flight was pleasant. We got to have good food and the hospitality was nice. I looked around in curiosity. It was our first time and I decided to take a selfie with mummy and A. Mummy looked, and was really very tired. She didn’t even want to eat the food. She just wanted to sleep and she did. She dozed off and so did A. I was just looking around and simping over the beautiful young air hostesses and also the very good looking male flight attendant. We were travelling by Nepal Airlines and they spoke to us passengers in Nepali and English. There were magazines to read in the pocket of the seats at the back. I pulled out the magazine and started reading. It was a really nice magazine introducing the wonders that Nepal holds, the main festivals and about the living goddess that is worshipped every year. I was falling asleep but I was trying hard not to. I wanted to take in every bit of the flight. Just a 13 year old sitting and trying to take in that she was actually floating and moving in air with her mom and sister. No one cares about the uncles after their trash behaviour.

The flight came to an end and we landed in Nepal. We all boarded on the bus that takes us to the main airport after the flight has landed. The airport at Kathmandu wasn’t as good as the one in bangalore. I was disappointed but eh, whatever. I looked around in curiosity. Everyone was speaking in nepali – I mean obviously. But that was stressing me out. I kept my mouth shut as we walked towards the exit with our heavy luggages. We took a taxi to a hotel nearby. It was around 9:30 pm in Nepal and 9:15 pm in India. Uncle called unkya and informed him that we had reached. A and I wished him goodnight. He was happy to hear that we had reached safely. We got into the hotel and took a rest for the night. We really needed it to travel from east to west Nepal, the next morning. Both uncles were quarrelling all night in that single bed they had to squeeze and sleep in. The morning sun rose and we got ready for another adventure, a long trip to our house in the hills of the mighty Himalayas.

We travelled for 8 hrs from Kathmandu to Baglung city and had to take a jeep to reach home, which was at the top of the mountains. It took us another 3 hrs of wobble tobble in the packed jeep, but we reached. We made it. As we climbed to our house I saw a figure standing in the dark. It spoke to me. It took me time to register that it was my dad. I wanted to go greet him but he said to back off and not touch him. I was puzzled.I backed away. He said to go up. I saw all my family members sitting silently in a row outside, looking at the five of us entering. It looked like they were spectators in a crowd waiting for the event to start as the guest or performer was arriving on stage.

I was utterly confused. We were asked to sit. A and I sat on the modas. My mom and uncles were called inside. I sat in the cold night amongst the family of strangers. After a while my mom came out crying. She removed her chappals, her jewellery, her shawl and washed her face, hands and legs, as she continued to weep. I was so puzzled and scared. I was taken to another room by my cousin K and she broke the news to me that hajur ba had passed away yesterday. He had passed away the morning we left Bangalore to fly there. That was finally my answer to why unkya cried so bitterly and the situation around. A secret he kept but couldn’t hide.

I felt deeply sad on the death of hajur ba. I couldn’t get to see him for the last time. I sat there in shock, the room filled with utter silence.

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Saraswathi Ram Bahadur

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