Letters to Mussoorie

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I wipe a layer of dust off a large wooden box in the attic. It creaks as I open it. A dim light bulb hanging from the roof illuminates its contents.

My old school uniform peeks out from under a few dry sprigs of neem and some other clothes. Brown pants, now faded and a white sweater with ‘Mussoorie Public School’ embroidered on it in blue thread. I’m going to keep these. The rest, I will donate. Ma held on all my things for as long as she was alive.

“It feels like you’re still here, Samir. Let me keep them, please,” she used to say, running her hand over these clothes and occasionally picking up one of my shirts to hold it close to her face, taking in the musty smell.

I miss Ma. But her loss doesn’t punch me in the gut anymore. The two years since her passing and my life in Delhi have tamped down my grief. But there are times when her favorite song just randomly plays on the radio. I see her or hear her sometimes while walking down the road. I sing the same lullabies to my kids that she used to sing to me.

***

“Ma, what’s Baba like?” I ask Ma every night. She never seems to tire of it.

“Baba is a prince, a kind one. He travels to countries far far away, but he misses us a lot.” My four year-old self laps this story up.

I am seven when Prakash, my classmate riles me up. “Samir’s dad is dead!” He shouts out loud in the school quadrangle.  I punch his nose. He boxes my ears in return. Our teachers rush down to separate us before we kill each other.

“Is Baba really dead?” I demand. She continues dabbing my bruises with a cotton ball soaked in antiseptic.

“Ma, is Baba dead?”

“No.” Her eyes blaze. “Baba is not dead.”

A few days later, a postcard arrives. It is addressed to me. My chest puffs up. It has a picture of the Pyramids of Giza. On the other side, a bold cursive handwriting says –

Dear Samir,

Hello from Egypt. I hope you’re being good and studying well. I miss you both very much.

Love,

Baba.

I hug the postcard with all my might as if I can squeeze Baba out of it. I run up and down Mall Road waving the postcard. Dressed in my uniform, I run bare feet, cutting through the Mussoorie fog, through throngs of tourists. People huddled around coal braziers stare, stray dogs bark, but I don’t stop until I reach the top of the hill. “Baba is alive!” I shout out. The Himalayas echo my elation.

I read all about Egypt in school the next day. I draw the pyramids, talk constantly about them and dream about them.

The next one arrives a few weeks later. This time it’s a picture of a lion in the Serengeti.  I make up tall stories to tell my friends. The postcard shrine on my table grows taller.

Ma hums while cooking these days. She dresses in brighter colors.

We never know when those postcards from my father will arrive, but it is like Diwali morning whenever they do.

***

The trill of my ringtone brings me back to the attic. It’s my wife checking in on me. I only have a few days to sort through Ma’s stuff before selling the house. My feet are numb from kneeling. I heave myself up and hold onto a wooden crate for balance. I recognize the cardboard box inside. I stored Baba’s postcards in it.

They’re all in there, with a few new ones that I haven’t seen before. They’re all blank except the one with the Brooklyn bridge on it. There are only two words on the other side. “Dear Samir,” It’s the same cursive handwriting. I bury my face in the card.

There’s a yellowing paper sitting under all those cards. 

Dear Shanti… This handwriting is different, masculine and slightly messy. It’s a letter addressed to my mother.

My eyes skim over the next sentence. “You and Samir mean everything to me, but I cannot stay...”

My eyes smart. I crumple the letter, throw it back in the box and bang it shut. 

My father was a Prince, a busy one who traveled the world. He will remain that forever.

20 thoughts on “Letters to Mussoorie

  1. hers4thereading

    I really enjoyed this. I loved how, even though I knew right away that the postcards were sent by his mother, you stayed true to Samir’s innocence. You didn’t tell us that he was going to be disappointed but led us to it. Well done!

    Reply
  2. innatejames

    I echo what hers4thereading said. I wasn’t sure who was writing the postcards, but I knew something wasn’t right and finding out what was what propelled me through your story. The first section is a little disjointed from the other two. I think because it’s a more general feeling than a specific moment. A collection of Samir’s memories. It felt more detached even though the emotion is there. I think it’s also more telling than showing (“I miss Ma. But…”) and that stuck out because you did a fantastic job of showing in the other two segments (Ma’s reaction to Samir’s question of Baba’s death especially).

    Reply
    1. mixedbag Post author

      I re-read my piece and I see what you’re saying. Thank you, Nate. Your comments always help. Hope you have a wonderful vacation!

      Reply
  3. Trish Tuthill

    This is just fantastic, Hema. This line “I hug the postcard with all my might as if I can squeeze Baba out of it.” was my favourite. A heavy topic done with such a light touch.

    Reply
  4. Laura

    I think my comment got lost but I just wanted to say that your changes packed in a lot more emotion. Nice job!

    Reply
    1. mixedbag Post author

      All thanks to your suggestions, Laura! The present tense throughout was such a good idea 🙂

      Reply
  5. Asha Rajan

    Hema, I really liked the way you showed the reader Samir’s emotions and his life, especially in the second and third parts of this story. As Nathan mentioned, the first section is a little more telling and a little less showing, so it reads less dynamically than the rest.

    Reply
  6. Asha Rajan

    (I think my comment also got lost) You did such a good job of showing the reader Samir’s life and emotions in the second and third parts of this story, and there was just enough foreshadowing for us to guess at what might be the truth, without ever revealing it fully. As Nathan mentioned, the first section was more expository, so it read a little less dynamically than the rest.

    Reply
    1. mixedbag Post author

      I see what you mean, Asha, I’m still not sure how to make the first bit shine, though. I guess I’ll have to try writing it in a different way to see how it sounds. Thank you so much, Asha. I love it when you comment <3

      Reply
      1. Asha Rajan

        I’m so glad! I always read. I’m trying to get around to comment on everyone’s entries more. It’s good to know y’all get something out of that.

        Reply

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