Setting out the dishes for dinner with my parents I wonder, “Is this what it means to grow old?” Today’s place settings shy in comparison to the weight of clinking clattering cutlery I recall from my youth. Three people only need three plates, three plates, and three forks. My siblings and I have fledged and flown the coop. Once in a while we return to the old nesting ground, whooping and tittering and snuggling in the rafters. But when we fly back to our nests, the silence is stark. The laughter echoes, then dies out. “Sab chale gaye,” My mother remarks. Everyone has gone away. Is this what it means to grow old?
After we eat, my mother calls me to retire to the living room with her and my father. Our house guests, my mom’s two younger sisters and the youngest one’s two year old daughter who were staying with us for the last two days, left earlier in the afternoon. My parents and I sit side by side on one couch, looking at the vacant white couches which have seated a parade of family and friends over the years. My parents and I miss the baby who’s now back in Florida, reunited with her playthings. We chuckle and reminisce over the same observations we’ve already laughed over.
Children have a disarming charm. Someday their eyes will adjust to subtlety and gradation, but while they are small, the world is simple and understood. Winged birds are all called “Guck.” Two similarly-shaped objects of different sizes are proudly annointed “Mama Baby.” The things we are afraid of are banished when we say “Bye-bye,” and blow them kisses. A large part of children’s language is unintelligible babble, but still they narrate long dramas with the cadence of speech. They laugh and gesticulate and frown and pause as they have seen others do. Amidst the chattering and drooling, my baby cousin’s tales have a common refrain. “Bye Mama Baby. Bye Mama Baby. Bye Mama Baby.” She repeats the three words as if she knows. Someday she will have to go.
When we have finished retelling the stories, we fall silent. “Rawnak nahi rahi.” my mom sighs. “Rawnak,” that quintessentially Urdu word that refers to the joyous thrum of human activity, is no longer here. The rawnak I remember is the ringing of laughter, the jingling of bangles, the doorbell ringing with yet another envoy of guests, joking and shoving each other in the line for lunch, retreating into the basement with cousins to play board games, fitting too many people into one car, going on late-night ice cream runs, sleeping on makeshift beds on the floor because guests are sleeping in your room, waking up to the aroma of halwa puri… Rawnak is the festive hustle and bustle of life being lived. This rawnak lifted its plumed head, shook its feathers, and with a few flaps, flew from our home.
Now we sit huddled in the dark. The shadows from the fireplace play across our faces. The warmth from the fire floats up into the empty, high ceilings of our home. The chandelier selected with such care hangs unlit in the foyer. My dad tells me they are thinking of selling the house. “What’s the point of having such a big house when everyone has moved far away?” He asks. I nod. It makes sense. But I’m worried when they leave, the rawnak won’t return.