By Catherina Moss
People could not help but take a second look as Mildred Byrnes stepped down from the train onto the platform of her little hometown in the “up country” railway colony at Ranchi in 1980. Though simple, her attire of an expensive cut were unmistakably Lacroix and Ralph Lauren. In short, she was an embodiment of wealth and class. She smiled as she spotted Deidre who had come to meet her at the station. The two cousins then made their way to Deidre’s home on the far side of town.
On the streets, tongues were wagging. The small but closely knit community of Anglo Indians reacted to Mildred’s arrival with mixed feelings. “I wish we had known about her visit in advance. Then the ladies and I could have arranged a grand homecoming for her,” said Mrs Simms.
“Oh, it’s so typical of you to want to waste the limited resources of this town on grand functions which we can least afford. Did it ever occur to you that maybe our Mildred plans to make a financial contribution towards our welfare in this town? The community and the town are badly in need of repair and Mildred always had such a generous nature,” said Mrs Watson.
“Nonsense! I’ll bet she is searching for a location to shoot one of those films of hers. Can you imagine our town teeming with film stars and tourists? It will finally be famous –just like Cannes!” exclaimed Jojo, the over imaginative movie buff.
There was no end to the gossip or the rumours that spread like wildfire. However, the most vital question remained unanswered. Why had Mildred Byrnes returned?
The truth was that Mildred had asked herself that very same question on the journey and even she had been unable to provide a definite answer. It was a very long time since she had last visited her hometown. Her immediate family had moved abroad as had most of her friends when beckoned by greener pastures. There was nothing left for her here. Was she crazy to return?
Mildred’s thoughts flew back to Deidre and life in the country which she had left behind. Deidre and she had been the best of friends since childhood. Though different as chalk from cheese, their differences always seemed to complement each other. Mildred was the one who stunned all who beheld her not merely due to her dazzling beauty and gregariousness but also because of her noticeable ambition to succeed. On the other hand, Deidre, the shy and dusky “plain Jane” was destined for the simple life in a small town. When Mildred’s family had moved abroad, they had maintained their friendship through constant correspondence.
She looked at herself in the mirror. In spite of her age, the woman who stared back at her was unusually attractive. Her hair was swept back into a neat chignon and her pleasant olive complexioned face was smooth without blemishes or wrinkles. Yet her eyes had lost that beautiful sparkle of vitality which had had always set her apart as an individual. It was as if her fun loving and passionate self had faded away behind a façade of respectable conventionality. It was as if she had alienated her true identity in order to conform to the demands of mainstream culture.
She desperately needed to escape from her life and to break free. There would of course be consequences but for the first time Mildred did something completely spontaneous and unthinkable. She decided to accept Deidre’s invitation to visit her home in Ranchi. Within an hour she had phoned her cousin, packed her bags, and boarded a plane headed to India.
Mildred was delighted to meet Deidre whom she had not seen for a long time. After a short walk, they finally reached Deidre’s red brick house. Strangely, Mildred felt more at home in this cosy eccentric interior furnished with a variety of faded drapes, pot-pourri and bric-a-brac than she had ever done in her tastefully decorated house in Canada. Deidre made some tea and croquets while Mildred unpacked her bags. Conversation between the two was genial and easy. At times, silence fell between them but it was a comfortable silence, which both appreciated. After they had finished eating, Mildred helped Deidre to wash the dishes.
In her usual good natured manner, Deidre had not missed an opportunity to tease Mildred, “Honestly Milly, you now look like a proper memsahib with all your new foreign accent and clothes and all. You are so lucky to live abroad. I hear life is really great there.”
“Then why didn’t you try to emigrate? Uncle Kenny offered to sponsor you so many times,” quipped Mildred.
“It isn’t as easy as you would all like to think. There was nobody to take care of Nana when she was ill. Somebody had to stay back to look after her. She needed to have someone from the family with her especially during her last days and with things changing so rapidly here. They say that the country’s wealth is increasing but our bank balances are quite stubbornly stagnant,” replied Deidre.
“That’s because you have less scope for growth here. Just look around you. Our way of life, our community and our town is dying. It’s only a matter of time before it disappears,” said Mildred.
“So what do you propose I do then? Should I abandon everything and everyone like you to pursue my own selfish interests? Pretend that the people and the home which I love simply never existed and that I don’t belong to the community anymore? You people abroad may lead a more comfortable and wealthier life but that is no reason for you to be so cynical and believe that those of us left behind are like some dying vestiges of a forgotten era,” retorted Deidre.
Mildred was quick to defend herself, “What do you mean by ‘abandon’? Didn’t I send you money to take care of Nana? It isn’t as easy or as glamorous to survive abroad as you may imagine. We do not have the luxury of living in a place where one lives near to one’s family and friends; where everyone knows everybody else and where everything is just around the corner.”
“I know you sent money but sometimes it wasn’t enough. The cost of everything has increased. Prices are not what they used to be. And I do feel that you did abandon us because there were times when a little concern and sympathy would have meant so much more than money. We may not be rich here but we are who we are and we are proud of it,” snapped back Deidre.
Mildred was speechless. Initially she resented Deidre whose words had turned her world upside down. However, her anger gradually subsided. She realized that it was easier to blame Deidre than to face the fact that her life was in dire need of change and re-examination. She finally plucked up the courage be true to herself and answer the question which had plagued her for a long time. “Am I truly happy?” she asked herself.
In the view of the world, she lived the life that most Anglo Indians wished for in their dreams. She hobnobbed with the social elite, had a high profile job with a large salary, a spacious house in a fashionable neighbourhood, expensive cars, and all the designer clothing and jewellery one could imagine. However, something was missing from her life. While she smiled at the world, her soul was dying a little bit with every passing day. She sank down on the tattered armchair.
She looked fragile; as if she might break apart at any moment. Deidre immediately regretted her outburst. “Hey, Milly girl, I am so sorry. I should never have reacted the way I did. It is silly to think that we flew at each other’s throats as if we belonged to two separate groups of Anglo Indians when we share a bond which unites us no matter where we live.”
Mildred managed a feeble smile.
“How are you really, Milly?” questioned Deidre. Her voice was now warm with concern,
“Ok, I guess. Just a bit tired,” replied Mildred.
“Why the sudden trip to Ranchi?” asked Deidre.
A tear ran down Milly’s cheek. “I don’t know. I guess I wanted a break” she whispered.
Deidre now sensed that there was something not quite right with her friend, “Milly, What’s going on? Is something wrong?”
“No, I just need to sort out a few things, that’s all.”
Deidre stared at her cousin in surprise. However, she respected her need for privacy so she refrained from asking any more questions or passing judgements. This was something that Mildred needed to work out on her own. Sensing Mildred’s growing restlessness, she suggested that they take a walk, “It will do you good to clear your head.”
Ten minutes later, Mildred had exchanged her Gucci shoes for a pair of Deidre’s worn hiking boots and followed the rough hewn road as it wound and twisted its way this way and that. Her body protested against the exercise but she ignored the pain. After a while, they found themselves heading toward a wooded tract of countryside. Hearing the gurgling of water, they followed the sound until she arrived at the Ranchi lake. Mildred drank in the scenic beauty greedily realizing for the first time in her life that the simplest things in life are often the most exquisite.
She glanced up as she heard the overhanging leaves rustle in the cool breeze. Memories of childhood flooded her mind. It was in these very same woods that Deidre and she had spent some of the happiest days of their lives studying in the Loreto School, Ranchi, playing silly games, chasing butterflies, hunting for tadpoles in the muddy puddles, listening to birdsong and watching squirrels scamper on the trees. A wave of nostalgia made her wish that she could travel back in time to those golden hued moments when life was simple and the worries of the world were left far behind.
It was strange to think that somehow the dreams of wealth, fame and status that had seemed important fifteen years ago were quite meaningless now. Yes, her world was perfect – so perfect in fact that her face had grown to fit the masks of her own making. It was no surprise then that everyone had taken her for granted. She had let other people dictate the decisions she made to such an extent that she had lost track of what truly mattered to her in life both as an Anglo Indian and as an individual.
Mildred sat down on the soft green carpet of grass and dipped her hand in the water of the lake as she had always done when she was troubled as a child. Overcome by the weight of her thoughts, she closed her eyes and relaxed as she let the cool water flow through her fingers. Slowly, she began to empty her mind of all thoughts and anxieties until she was completely unaware of the passage of time.
Deidre’s voice interrupted the silence. Hey, do you realize that we have landed up in Nana’s favourite place? Mildred remembered her dearest, most beloved Nana, who had succumbed to a six-month battle with cancer.
They had always been close to their grandmother. As the girls grew in years, they began to imbibe many of the personality traits of Grandma Sybil. Mildred inherited her independence and her determination while Deidre inherited her sensitivity and sense of responsibility. Both Nana and the girls took great pleasure in each other’s company. They would talk about everything – stories from Nana’s past, her recipes, school, the bugs in the garden, the pesky newspaper boy, the acne on the girls’ cheeks – everything. Mummy called them three peas in the same pod.
“Do you remember how Grandma was always optimistic?” asked Mildred.
“We never heard her complain even once. I saw how the disease slowly ravaged her body and drained out life but not hope. Nana’s eyes sparkled to the last. She would never give up. She loved life too much for that.” Deidre’s words were touched with pride.
However, Mildred hated the fact that life in the form of cruel fate had stolen her dearest Nana when she now needed her the most – when she had so many questions to ask.
Deidre said in a soft voice, “Try and think of the happy times. Isn’t that what Nana would want you to do?”
Happy memories. Mildred did not have to search for long – there were so many. Her happiest moments were conversations with Nana and Deidre in the garden. She loved it when Grandma Nan spoke to her about angels. “Angels are agents of God on earth. They come in all shapes and forms. You just have to know where to look,” said Nana. “See the sunshine, darlings! I always call them Angel Rays because they give great relief to these aching bones of mine. Besides, they also cheer me up on a dull and cloudy day. In a way, they actually remind me of you, my dear little angelic rays of sunshine.”
At that very moment, the sun peeked through the clouds. Mildred felt strangely light-headed as if an enormous weight had been lifted off her shoulders. A ray of sunshine fell on both Mildred’s and Deidre’s shoulders uniting these two residents of different lands in an unbreakable bond of belonging to the same family and community. It felt like the warm and comforting touch of Grandma Sybil. “Angel Rays,” they both grinned and murmured. From that moment on they knew that they would always be reminded of the presence of their beloved Nana by the sunshine – an angel on their doorstep. Rising slowly, the two women plodded back to town.
A line from a poem by Robert Frost played on Mildred’s mind:
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Based in Kolkata, Catherina Moss completed her B.A (English Honours) from Loreto College, M.A (English) from Jadavpur University and B.Ed from St. Xavier’s College. She taught English at the high school level for two and a half years and recently qualified for lectureship at the college level in India. She has participated in one international and two national seminars of which one of her papers has been included in a book entitled Cross Currents of The Modern Short Story published by Loreto college & OUP. In addition, she has also written four short stories for a weekly newspaper (‘The Herald’), an article entitled Anglo Indians: The spirit within which was published by Reach Out Magazine (CAISS), and a book review for Oxford Bookstore. Her interests include nature, photography, travelling and all things Anglo-Indian. She can be contacted by email on email@example.com