The Thing I Regret …

1995. You may agree that the world was very different back then. So was I. A small, scared  and totally bewildered seven-year old who stood on the stairs of boarding school waving to my mother, oblivious to the fact that it was a ‘Goodbye’ of sorts!

You see, I could not understand why all the other little girls were wailing once their parents left. I was sure that my mother would pick me up from the school in the evening like she always did. (Although I was seven, I had already been to five schools by then!) It was supposed to be just another new school where I would continue to be the Princess . So I ran into my dormitory and was thrilled to learn that it was already ‘tuck’ time or play time. St. Mary’s, Pune had a lovely campus and I immediately decided to explore it all alone. Almost immediately, the large Matron yelled out that beyond those trees on the left was out-of-bounds and the corner to the right where the cars were parked was the outer limit for boarders. Puzzled – I wondered what a ‘Boarder’ was and surprised that someone was telling me in such a harsh tone where I could go and where I could not.

I nodded and was about to scamper off to those trees anyway when a shrill bell rang from out-of-nowhere. That plump Matron told me it was time for Lunch and we all had to go the dining room. Over a hundred girls of all sizes and shapes gathered. A bell rang and prayers were said. A bell rang and they began eating. Some served themselves. Because we were so little, our food was already served onto our plates. I ate slowly and was chattering away excitedly. Another bell rang and it was time to leave but I hadn’t finished my food. I stared in horror when the Matron snatched my plate away and nudged me away from it. She said she would slap me the next time I wasted food. The bell rang again and we all had to ‘rest’. More bells each hour or two evening it dawned on me that my mother was not coming back.

I hated it all. Never before, had my life been so regimented and I must have had received a spanking from the large Matron atleast four times by the end of the week. But unlike the other little girls who were my classmates I refused to cry. I resignedly got used to the bells. I was no longer the District Collector’s daughter with nine servants to attend to me, three tortoises, large gardens and any-time meals. I was one among the twenty-odd boarders of Third Standard (Grade Three) with a wooden plank in a shared cupboard of my clothes and a bed to lie on. Add to insult the Matron picked the clothes I was to wear and I never managed to finish a single meal on time, so was served a paltry amount of food each time.

But the weekend came and all that changed. My Surabhi Aaboo {Assamese word for grandmother} was waiting for me on the same porch that Saturday morning. She was my Grandmother’s cousin and my local guardian. She had firmly told the Matron that she would be taking me home as per the Rules and I was convinced she was my Fairy Godmother. With twinkling eyes and a big smile, my sari-clad guardian swept me over in a big hug and said “Let’s go, Chitty!”

When Surabhi Aaboo dropped me back to the Boarding the next day, watching her leave me on the same porch  as my mother had the previous weekend the first bout of tears had to come my eyes. Thereafter, I began to become very homesick as reality had sunk in.

I was a Boarder. St.Mary’s, Pune back then had both dayscholars and boarders- so this meant my new life was in the confines of the school premises always unless my Parent or Guardian took me out. Moreover, my folks had signed me in as a ‘monthly boarder’ which meant that the last weekend of each month was when my Guardian was permitted to take me out on the Friday evening and drop me back by Sunday evening. But Surabhi Aaboo who doted on me would come to pick me up every weekend anyway. It was only that year the her first grandchild, Mitali was born so in a strange way I guess I was like a grandchild to her too.

Even though I never told her that I missed home very much, she understood that I really looked forward to meeting her as I would be sitting there on the porch every Saturday morning between 10 am – 12 pm (the free hours) knowing that my short-haired and bejewelled Fairy Godmother will come for me. Her house on Boat Club Road in Pune was enormous …I would feel like a princess all over again. Green lawns to run all over, books a-plenty which I could pull out and read whenever I felt like and meals that were hot and wholesome and according to my taste and pace.

As a seven-year old I was skilled in manipulation and the subtle nuances of human nature. Every letter that I wrote to my mother was heart-rending, sometimes with a strategic tear-drop that would blotch up my signature. Moreover, I would ‘strategically’ send the letter to my mother’s office instead of home on a postcard. This meant that before my mother could get a hold of it – her entire office from the Peon on the ground floor to her Personal Assistant had read it, and would glare accusingly at my mother who had a reputation for being the fearsome and revered District Collector of Bellary (Karnataka) without any fear or reverence. “How can you leave such a small baby in that school there, Madam? If you do not go and bring her back, we all will resign!” {That is a serious threat, as no one chooses to leave a Government job in India unless with extreme duress or coercion.}

So Mom caved. My mother can be likened to a coconut, tough as nails on the outside but all soft and gooey on the inside.

I can never forget that month-end of June 1995. Finally I was to be going home! Or so I thought. You can imagine the sincere outrage when I was left on that porch again on Sunday evening. Both my Mom and Surabhi Aaboo had come and this time I began not only to weep, but also wail and throw a tantrum in front of other parents and the Matron too. I think the whole night was spent weeping away and I might have depraved my fellow boarders of a peaceful night of sleep. Surabhi Aaboo was a witness to all this and thereafter resolved to come to see me every weekend, come what may. Despite my Matron’s requests, then firm warnings and then pleas to Surabhi Aaboo that I was not to leave the boarding premises each weekend and she was not allowed to come and see me each time, Surabhi Aaboo always arrived each Saturday, all sparkling and twinkle-eyed. She never missed a weekend to visit, even if my Matron stomped around to declare that I was forbidden to leave. She became my constant, my guardian, my friend and I was always her most beloved ward!

Sometimes I think it is fair to attribute my love for travel to Surabhi Aaboo’s teachings. I recollect one rainy weekend with a small thunderstorm; I was stuck indoors – wondering what to do. She pulled out an enormous book which turned out to be the Oxford Great World Atlas and handed it to me. It was thick, heavy and hard-bound; I could barely stand straight trying to hold it! We then sat down and she wrote the name of ten places. After showing me how to look up the first place (Paris!) she instructed that I should look up the others “before the thunderstorm ends.” By that evening I was in love with the Atlas and in awe of how big our planet was – there was so much to see, so much to learn! Eyes sparkling with excitement and a pencil and paper in hand, I would run to her every two hours and ask her to list out more places for me to look up!

Looking back at the three years I spent in Pune as a boarder at St.Mary’s – I now think of them as “happy” times. I began to feel at home in time, made some great friends, adjusted to the curriculum and the schedule and began to perform better each year. Infact, the day I learned that I was to move out of boarding was when I cried and threw a tantrum at my mother again ‘for dislodging a comfort zone’ and of course, taking me away from Surabhi Aaboo.


2005 – Of course, things were different. Pune had changed, I was all grown- up and a fresher in college for which I was proud to belong ; ILS Law College having earned the No.1 ranking of India’s law schools (acc. to India Today) that year. I was excited to be off to college, ready to taste independence, eager to sample some “college-life”. Pune offered an abundance of things to do – especially being close to numerous trekking trips and the gorgeous Western Ghats. My college had a hill of its own, and within months of arriving in Pune I had a new set of friends, a healthy mix of classes, diplomas, treks and college extra-curriculars that I was involved in. As Surabhi Aaboo lived towards the other end of town, I met her only once when I arrived, all happy to be back in Pune after a decade and somehow the first year passed by without us being able to meet despite one or two plans to do so.

The next three years also went by – neither I nor Surabhi Aaboo tried to meet up with one another. Occasionally we would speak for Diwali and New Year, but it was more of polite enquiry than fond recollections. Sometimes I would even pass by her house on Boat Club Road and gush to my friends – “My grandaunt and local guardian lives here; aren’t the lawns are so beautiful!?” But it never struck me that I ought to visit, our relationship was of a decade ago, we both were different people now.

In my fourth year, I found out that Surabhi Aaboo had cancer. For a brief time that my mother had come down to Pune to visit, we paid her a visit. She seemed to be doing well – as active and smiling as ever. She was always involved in a number of charitable meetings and gatherings – especially dedicated to the Arts. Yet looking at her, I felt terrible that I hadn’t found the time to visit her before and decided that I would come to meet her with a small card that might let her know how important she was to me back as a seven year old.

I made the little card – it was a collage that I knew she would appreciate. Telling myself that I would visit as soon as my exams were done, I would happily imagine myself giving it to her. I told myself we could chat about all our memories as I had read that being a Cancer survivor means one must keep happy and positive even post all surgical treatments.

That day never came. Ten days to my exams and I woke up to my mother calling, informing me that Surabhi Aaboo had passed away the night before, and I must go and attend her last rites ceremony to ‘represent’ our side of the family.

I think I practically fell out of bed that day, and the next few hours that followed was a bit of a blur. It was as if the whole world had collapsed and yet, in a flash I could recollect all the moments of the times I spent with her years ago; all which I had conveniently forgotten in the four years since I had returned to Pune.

I donned the white clothes{a Hindu custom}, rushed to her house where there was a small yet grand last rites puja being performed. Suddenly, despite so many days of not being in that house – I could make myself useful there to her son, his family and all the close friends who were busy organising things. I could recollect the little things she liked, arrange things in a jiffy and be an extra hand and legs to do all the last-minute running around that are typically required at any large Indian gathering.

Surabhi Aaboo’s son – Milon deeply appreciated my presence and all the help I could offer their family. He even called my mother the very next day to tell her how grateful he was and how lucky my mother is to have a daughter like me. But when I heard this, I could only hang my head in shame.

You see, I later realised I hadn’t acted out of compassion or sincerity. It was guilt. Pure, unadulterated; I was as guilty as a man who has committed treason on his way to the gallows.

The card I made, I had to tear up and then burn ; so stricken was I with this choking sensation everytime I saw it- some days later I became overwhelmed in tears at the realisation that despite my knowing she had Cancer, not once in seven months had I found the time to meet her.

Alright, I was busy. She always was. So what if it was a long auto-rickshaw journey of about Rs. 65 to her house? So what if I needed to wake up a bit earlier on a Sunday morning? So what if I had to skip a movie date or a trek to spend some quiet moments with her? Wasn’t she always there every weekend for me, sometimes just to pay a small visit when I needed her? Sitting on my front porch and steps of my little outhouse which I had rented, I felt like the same lost little seven-year old  on the porch, in St.Mary’s. Overwhelmed with nostalgia, eyes brimming with tears – these thoughts kept repeating in my head. My beloved Fairy Godmother, my Grand-aunt was gone, and I never once managed to tell her a real ‘Thank you’.

At a recent interview, I was asked “Is there anything you regret?” All these thoughts came back and I wasn’t able to phrase it  in a sentence. With a small apology, I told the interviewer that this being an interview  for the ICICI Fellowship and not a job – could I tell him a short story? He consented and heard this tale. He then smiled – telling me that I should write about this. I then admitted that with my 25th birthday imminent – even as I look back at all the failures and mistakes of this life, not having the ‘time’ to rekindle the magical relationship with Surabhi Aaboo was the only ‘real’ thing I regret.

Food for Thought.

If we were to simply sit and think of all the mistakes we made – which do we believe were totally avoidable? I have come to realise, that it always is our inability to communicate to the people we love – how much we love them or value them for having made our lives a little happier. Grandparents, parents, siblings, lovers, past lovers, aunts and uncles, friends, close relatives, distant relatives,a kind stranger, the nurse who attended to you, the bellboy or doorman who greets you everyday … why does it take the moment they are gone for us to realise, maybe we should have simply said ‘Thank you’!

It has been four years since she passed, and I carry this burden of regret every time I open an Atlas, or sit at a porch, or see a grey-haired and smartly dressed lady holding the hand of a little girl, or make finishing touches to a card I might have drawn … thinking to myself – Was I really that busy?

What could have possibly been more important that I was so selfish to be unable to find  some moments of time with her ?

My bejeweled and twinkle-eyed fairy godmother, Surabhi Aaboo – I know you are missed by so many people who’s lives you have touched, but I hope you know how much you meant to me and how much I miss you. I hope you know that I can never forget you. But more so, I hope you can forgive me. 

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11 Responses to The Thing I Regret …

  1. Abhijit says:

    Enjoyed reading your write up about your schooldays and your Surabhi Aaboo.

  2. a touching story!
    often the people who matter the most in our lives, are the one’s we take for granted!

  3. Asha Durgesh Mehta... says:

    I am touched wonderful writing…very well done …keep doing it, you are gifted..

    Love u …..

  4. Thank you for your kind words and for dropping by my blog, Asha Mashi!

  5. Lucky you! You had the luxury of spending first seven years of your life with your parent/s before venturing out. I was sent to my Grandma’s place when I was barely 14 months old because of my mother’s kidney stone operation and I was there till I was 7 years old to come home to spend next 10 years in a single school. Sounds simple, isn’t it? But this was the most amazing time I had spent with my maternal Great Grandparents, Grandparents, mama-mashi’s and some truly amazing personalities who left lasting impressions on my mind’s eye (80% of our character is molded by the time we are 8 years old, additional 10% by the time we are 18 years old and we have got rest of our life to adjust remaining 10%- says research published by Department of Psychology, University of Philadelphia, Year 1995).

    I was away from my parents but never alone. Getting up early in the morning to do homework, joining grandparents on morning walk to temples, climbing neem, banyan, neelgiri, babul, guava and mango trees, eating fresh fruits directly from home grown garden and having breakfast while hanging upside down most of the time- trying to make better sense of the universe around, sowing new plants every week, observing frogs, lizards and snakes- following their trails, watching Mashi’s amazing pet birds/animals- peahen hatch her eggs or cat take care of her new born babies, learning to speak different languages from parrots and building home for rabbits and nests for sparrows & pigeons in monsoon etc. and one week trip in every six months to home till I was 7 years old!

    I do not say I deserved it or this is how it was meant to be- today situation has changed- people in the above context are no longer alive or have ceased to exist who they used to be and most importantly I have become modified person but my love for nature, travel, adventure and authentic experiences comes from quality upbringing in natural surroundings and support system I received from all those around me. It is practically impossible to thank everyone of them. I do not regret the fact I was not in position to thank each & everyone but I have done my bit by becoming someone they always wanted me to be. Similarly, you too have done your bit so no more regrets. Just make your Surabhi Aaboo proud by your achievements with every passing year and by sharing all the love she had given you without any expectation/s.

    I do believe each one of us has unique stories to tell but only our laziness prevents us from sharing those amazing moments in life with others. I truly appreciate your effort in coming out with this honest piece of writing and I am sure, by writing this blog you have certainly inspired most other readers to say ‘Thank You’ to their Surabhi Aaboo’s – in some cases before its too late…

    Chitty, Just two words ‘Thank You’!

  6. Sheila Miranda says:

    Chiteisri, a beautifully worded tribute to your fairy godmother, straight from the heart. You are gifted and versatile – I have been going through blogs and am impressed. Keep writing.

  7. Thank you Sheila Miranda for your rich praise – Do you have a blog too?

  8. Monika says:

    Beautiful!! Lovely reading

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