That Chilly Winter Night

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I remember how cold it was that night.

I had taken them out for dinner; she and her mother. I’d just landed my dream job and I wanted to celebrate with her. Her mother invited herself, as I had (wrathfully) expected. To keep things her mother under control, I brought my brother along. The mother could hardly hijack the celebration with my rather strict older brother around. I felt safer with him there; I don’t mind confessing.

There has always been a confusion about which of the two was my friend, the mother or the daughter. Radha is almost twelve years younger to me while her mother Chanda is eight years older. The more I gravitated towards the daughter the more the mother clung to me like an annoying limpet. I never denied it because it was easier to agree than to stir up a hornet’s nest with a short stick. I told myself I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. We can invent all kinds of alibis to hang our cowardice on, can’t we?!

In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.

~ Charles Dickens

**********

Radha’s family and mine have been neighbors for two generations.

Our joint families were all so intertwined that it became difficult to sort out who was whose friend. The friendships went across generations as easily as brimming bowls of savories traveled back and forth over the common wall.

Chanda’s husband Suresh had doted on his little princess. Severely disappointed in Chanda for not being an outgoing, smart and stylish woman he had hoped to marry, he had pinned all his hopes on his daughter and cherished her deeply. The limits of her gaze defined the frontiers of her kingdom. She was his princess and nothing she laid eyes on was out of reach for her.

Chanda’s relationship with her daughter was turbulent from the day Chanda realized that the child was the apple of Suresh’s eyes. The more Suresh doted on the child, the angrier Chanda got. On the smallest pretext, the child would be slapped. She was never to hear a kind word from her mother. When she grew older, the beatings became worse. If Suresh tried to intervene, he got a virulent lash of her tongue too.

This doesn’t mean that Chanda was quarrelsome, nasty woman. To the world, she was cheerful and pleasant. In short interactions, she came across as helpful and friendly. A typical Leo, she loved to bask in the attention of those around her. The trouble began when she imagined her lime-light to be usurped.

I could have understood it if Chanda was jealous of Radha because she didn’t want to share Suresh’s love with her. Though the thought is unpleasant, it would have given a semblance of rationality to Chanda’s deep prejudice against Radha. But the dreadful fact was that Chanda didn’t want Suresh’s love for herself. She just didn’t want Radha to have it. The sheer malevolence of the thought of it made me shrink from her.

Torn between these two extreme worlds, the little Radha tried desperately to hold on to her sanity with her tiny hands. It never occurred to either parent that their deep divide had fashioned a sword’s edge for the child to walk on. Neither took pity on her. Neither made an effort to reconcile their disenchantment with each other. I am sure Suresh never wanted his princess damaged so. But though inadvertently done, he was also responsible turning the tender psyche of their unformed daughter into a war zone.

A bigger shame I am yet to witness.

When Radha turned seventeen, tragedy struck the family. Suresh was the unlucky victim to a fatal road accident. If her life was difficult before, it became an unlivable hell from then on. It was Radha’s lot to bear the brunt of her incapable mother’s towering frustrations and temper storms. Forget about consoling her for the loss of the only person who ever loved her, Chanda became an untamed shrew in her savageness. Her attacks on Radha became positively brutal and violent.

Radha had always been a good student but now her grades fell. She barely scraped through her final school year. Her marks were so poor that she was compelled to join a seedy college which was a two hour commute away from her home. That suited her just fine. She preferred to spend her time with friends or just roaming the streets.

Don’t cry my son

Don’t cry, because life is a redeemed fight

Life is a fight that will demean the weak person

And will always exalt the strong ones

~Gonçalves Dias

**********

I was working at Bangalore those days. When Suresh passed away, I had been away from home for almost three years. Cellphones were prohibitively expensive and the internet in its nascent days. Losing touch with someone because you’d moved out of their physical proximity was inescapable. I had no idea what was happening with Radha. I was not around during the toughest years of her life.

Chanda now had an excuse to torture the child even more. Radha began to spend more time away from home. She would leave before six in the morning with barely a cup of tea and return home after eleven. By this ruse, she managed to avoid Chanda on most days. But she paid the price for it on the days when Chanda woke early or was not yet abed at eleven. There would be scars of that interview to show the next day.

With all this going on, Radha tore the lid off hell by joining a theater group! Chanda went berserk with rage. Ostensibly her fury was that Radha become a part of something immoral and depraved (in her bigoted opinion), but the real reason was that she couldn’t bear the thought of Radha finding a little sliver of joy doing something that made her happy. How dared she be happy!

No, Radha didn’t run away from home. No, Radha didn’t fall into bad company. No, Radha didn’t become a helpless substance addict. No, Radha did not get involved with an unsavory character and compound her troubles. No, Radha did not take any of the ways out cowards take. With every excuse to, she didn’t take any of the predictable short-cuts.

She merely survived!

Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable spirit.

~Mahatma Gandhi

Dear reader, do you know what it means to survive? I hope you were touched by the word- not too closely, because that leaves terrible scars- but enough to know what it takes to walk that path. Radha survived. She pulled herself together and graduated with honors. Her expertise with oration and voice modulation- a gift of her years in the theater- got her a job as a voice trainer a few weeks before her graduation results.

The evening we went to celebrate, she had been working for two years and things had begun looking good for her. She was only twenty three years old. I had returned from Bangalore a year ago. In that year, I learned, bit by bit, the horror of what she had gone through. But I really, truly learned her only that chilly winter night.

Man is the only animal who strives to be more than he is. It is the indomitable spirit within that makes him human.

~Steven Lang

**********

By the time our dinner was over, it was after midnight. Earlier in the evening, the three of us had reached the swanky restaurant by auto-rickshaw while my fitness fanatic brother had walked the three kilometers to the restaurant. We could find no auto-rickshaws when we emerged into the street. It surprised us to find the place deserted; it was probably because of the cold.

As we began walking towards home, Chanda petulantly began to complain of pain in her legs. Thankfully, we spotted a cycle rickshaw just then. My brother was vociferously solicitous of Chanda’s comfort and amidst an air of martyred sacrifice, Chanda was persuaded to go home with him. Once they were gone, Radha and I walked along happily, hand in hand, talking nineteen to a dozen.

Shortly, we too found a cycle rickshaw. The moment we got into it, Radha began singing at the top of her voice. Her melodious, well trained voice rose and fell as it gave shape to the music that burst forth from her irrepressibly joyous heart. I was at once surprised and overwhelmed with love. As I sat looking at her and absorbing the pure notes with all my being, my love threatened to break all dams within me. I don’t remember feeling such deep gratitude ever before.

She stopped suddenly and turned to me, smiling.

“You also sing Meeta didi”, she coaxed winningly.

Dhutt pagli! What will the rickshaw-wala think?”

She caught hold of both my cold hands in her warm ones, threw her head back and burst into a peal of laughter with such carefree abandon that I was taken aback.

“Do you really care what the rickshaw-wala thinks didi? Should anyone’s opinion matter when your soul aches to sing? Should you care what the world wants when you can hear the commands your soul whispers in your ears? Should you Meeta didi?”

Humbled in the presence of her joy, struck speechless by her wisdom, I was silent for a few seconds as her dancing eyes probed into mine. That night I saw the flame which had sustained her through all her years of trauma. I knew that night, what treasures a being like Radha guards. I also understood that chilly winter night how essential it was that a girl like Radha survives, no matter what.

“You are right Radha. To sing when your soul commands you to is your sole obligation. If the world is shocked or disapproving, so be it!”

That night we both sang at the top of our voices all the way home- she melodious, I more than a little off tune. But it didn’t matter. We sang because it was right to sing, in the dead of night… while the world slept. It wasn’t cold by the time we got home that night. I was enveloped cozily in the flame that burned true in the heart of my dauntless young friend.

 This is what happened that chilly winter night.

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43 thoughts on “That Chilly Winter Night

  1. Leo

    Good that Radha survived, that she pulled together and reached where she reached. Yes, that word “survive” touches me, and I feel I can relate to that path. Facing adversity and overcoming it. I’m thankful though, that an abusive parent was not one of the adversities I faced.

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      I am sure you can relate to the path and the tenacity. You know what it takes to walk that path.

      First again I observe. Thank you Vinay! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Ruchira Shukla

    Struggle for Survival ! All of us face this in some form or the other, some like Radha have it bad and some like me are merely brushed by adversity – but enough to make us relaize that in the end nothing can help you but your own indomitable spirit.
    Lovely writing Dagny

    Reply
  3. Beloo Mehra

    Sing when your soul commands you to do it…that’s beautiful! And what an inspiring tale you have shared here, Dagny. As always. Thank God for people like Radha who teach us the true meaning of ‘survive’, not just in a physical/ outer way, but to keep that flame, that fire inside burning despite all what life throws at you. That is true survival, I suppose.

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Indeed that is true survival. To let your adversities turn you bitter and resentful is not survival. To hold the banner of your soul aloft, out of reach of those who ignorantly fling mud at it and not to feel resentful towards the mud-flingers…. that is a feat not easy to accomplish.

      And thus is inspiring!

      Thank you for your kind words Beloo. I wait eagerly for your comment. 🙂

      Reply
  4. mahabore

    “Should you care what the world wants when you can hear the commands your soul whispers in your ears? ” now that is one question that all of us needs to ask ourselves every once in a while, and thanks to you Dagny, I asked myself this question today 🙂

    Lovely post, liked how you managed to weave a wonderful simple story around this seemingly abstract concept.

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      I am thrilled that you liked the storyline and the manner in which it has been written. Thank you Jairam!

      Reply
  5. chsuresh63

    Have had my share of tribulations but, to me, mine were as nothing – the one treasure I have always had and continue to have is a supportive family network. I never had my sense of self-worth being systematically demolished at the age when a sense of self was just forming – which is why I still can never understand and get thoroughly enraged when I hear of or encounter people like Chanda. So, I can only imagine but not exactly feel survival in the sense that Radha survived OR, more to the point, her joy in life survived. Hers was an indomitable spirit.

    But, yes, I am proud to say that i share at least one characteristic with her. When I have to sing, I HAVE to sing 🙂

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Have I ever told you how much I love your comments?

      I find it unbearable too when I see parents decimate the very children they are supposed to nurture and buildup. There can be no justification for it; there is no excuse valid enough to make it even remotely acceptable. And if it is sheer ignorance, that’s even worse.

      I am pleased my protagonist shares an essential characteristic with the esteemed C Suresh! 😀

      Thank you for coming by Suresh!

      Reply
  6. Sfurti Juztamom

    I am the warrant and the sanction. I loved how you summed it up. Survival indeed is of the flame, living is not surviving. It is the grit to cross over, a pledge of a happy life, a belief in yourself, a promise to yourself that you deserve better. Wonderfully weaved as usual Dags 🙂

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      ‘Survival indeed is of the flame, living is not surviving. It is the grit to cross over, a pledge of a happy life, a belief in yourself, a promise to yourself that you deserve better. ‘ WOW!

      I couldn’t have summed up essence of the story better.

      Thank you muchly Sfurti!

      Reply
  7. Sid @ iWroteThose

    I guess I’ll always be amazed as to how you seamlessly manage to weave a story around a concept. It’s an art that I’ve seen many people try but be unsuccessful at. Yes, survival – it’s a strange word. The outcome sounds positive, but indicates that you’ve had to walk through thorns or fiery-hot coals to get there. Yes, I guess, we’ll all survived in some for or the other. Maybe not an abusive parent, but sometimes just some of life’s odd curve balls. Lovely post Dags. As usual 🙂

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Coming from someone who is an expert story teller, I am immensely gratified at your amazement. We never really trust the reflection in the mirror, do we? It is easier to admire the brilliance of another. 😀

      Thank you for the nourishing comment Sid. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Seeta

    Radha’s attitude towards life helped her survive… and it holds true for all of us as well.. listen to your inner voice rather than the world around you. I pity people like Chanda who really have nothing going for them, what a life to have… really sad..

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      People like Chanda will always clutter up the world. They are put into the world to teach us to listen to the voice of our soul…. and to know how precious our own life is. For we are the warrant and the sanction.

      Thank you Seeta. 🙂

      Reply
  9. nabanita21

    This is such a compelling tale of survival…Inspiring… That’s why I love reading you, I always go back with something to think about, something to introspect on…

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Your appreciation means a lot to me because my sole reason for writing is to create a moment which compels my reader to look beyond the everyday into what lies below the surface. Thank you for telling me that I am able to create such moments. This validation means a lot to me.

      I am delighted you liked the story. <3

      Reply
  10. gaurikekre

    I am speechless with awe Dagny, this was so well-written! I couldn’t peel my eyes off the screen for even a second. Radha sure is a mesmerizing soul, despite her adversities.

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Gauri, Our awe is mutual. I go gaga over your exquisite cakes and you like my writing. I will never forget the cake you made for the math teacher. Such meticulousness!
      As for Radha, she is a mesmerizing soul. Not despite her adversities but because of them. As they say, Adversity is a Character Builder.

      Thank you for the appreciation and the visit! <3

      Reply
  11. Ghata

    Its a sad sad story, but with elements of happiness. I hope it is not a true story. AND it is very well written 🙂

    Reply
  12. obsessivemom

    What a wonderfully warm story that was! And I’m a sucker for happy endings so it was quite perfect. Perhaps it was the strength of her soul that kept her spirit alive through all those tough times and the fact that she did what her heart told her to. What an indomitable spirit! It’s unbelievable how parents can be so cruel to their own children.

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Indeed it is terrible to see the cruelty of parents at times. There can’t be a bigger betrayal in this world than to have a mother like Chanda. But then, perhaps Chanda had a unique purpose to serve for Radha.

      I am very happy you liked the story. Thanks for coming by… 🙂

      Reply
  13. janu

    Parents have their own demons to fight and the kids are their easy targets. I am glad that Radha did not rebel and fall into bad ways. I can understand how it is to survive…it is there in most women, for each in a different way. No one cannot like your story 🙂

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Yes parents have their own demons and unresolved issues. Perhaps they were abused as children too. But if every generation keeps passing on the faulty programming to the next generation, how is healing to happen? Every parent has the capability to break the dysfunctional pattern whenever they wish. There is no reason why your children should suffer just because you did.

      Are you complimenting me with a double negative? 😀 Thank you! 🙂

      Reply
  14. pixie

    I think to survive is the best thing a person can do during times and phases of adversity.
    It doesn’t destroy one’s soul. I would like to think that my spirit and soul are sleeping when I’m surviving a difficult period.

    This stuck a chord for various reasons.. none as drastic as an abusive parent of course. But, nonetheless I would like to think that I’m surviving through my difficult phase and the day is not far off when I will sing like Radha, though it would be off key and not melodious at all. Until then I will keep humming away and take myself through these tough times..

    Thank you Dagny for this story.

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Hema, to each of us, our adversities are heavy. You may have a far more difficult a burden to bear, but that doesn’t mean that mine doesn’t seem heavy to me. When God gives great burdens, He also gives us greater strength to bear it.

      Here’s to your song, whenever you choose to raise your voice to sing it.

      Thank YOU for reading this. 🙂

      Reply
      1. pixie

        oh yes! I cant wait to sing off key all over again! 🙂

        What you say is true Dagny – to each of us, our burden is great however small it may seem to another person. Which is why one should never belittle another person’s journey

        Reply
  15. Rajrupa Gupta (@IRajrupa)

    Maybe because I have never experienced what Radha did, I can never fully appreciate the full importance of Radha’s survival. My adversities were more in lines of struggles to find foothold in an unknown hostile city alone, with ailing parents and a going no where job. Child’s play in comparison. But yet having survived it, I too had felt like Singing, off tune of course.

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Rajrupa, As I said on another comment, just because your adversity was bigger than mine, it doesn’t hurt me any less. To each of us, our troubles are painful. They are a trial to our strength and courage. I don’t think anyone should feel that they have no right to feel momentarily depleted because other people’s troubles are bigger. Of course, there are times when you do get a dose of perspective when you bear witness to another person’s journey- as you’ve just witnessed Radha’s.

      Here’s to hearing you sing…. off-tune or not. 😀

      Thanks for coming by.. 🙂

      Reply
  16. reekycoleslaw

    Isn’t it remarkable how mighty human spirit is? We face our own Chandas all through our lives in the form of people and deeds. Thank goodness that most of us have the resilience of overpowering adversity and becoming all the better despite it. We sometimes simply don’t know what we are capable of.
    Thanks for the reminder through this sparkling story!

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Right you are Rickie. The kind of adversities I have seen people overcome truly humbles. And what is all the more remarkable is that they not only survive their challenges but do it without bitterness and resentment. In fact these are the people who are usually the most grateful for what they have while the rest of us shake our fists, grumble and shout ‘WHY ME!’ at God.

      Thank you very much for your heartwarming comment. 🙂

      Reply
  17. Shailaja/ The Moving Quill

    Your story spoke to me, Dagny. There’s a silent power in the words that draws me in, keeps me hooked and makes me read till the end. The sheer blend of simplicity and profundity is incredibly done. Radha is a spectacular character, etched with love and struggle. I love the conclusion, where you talk of great capability even in the depth of all gloom.

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      What a wonderful, heartening comment Shailaja! I am thrilled you found the story gripping. Can there be anything more satisfying for a writer?

      Thank you for the appreciation and the visit! 😀

      Reply
  18. jaibalarao

    All of us struggle to survive mostly. I love the path Radha chose. Survival on her terms, but not rebelling. Though I guess her mother may not see it that way. To do what you heart tells you to, is the greatest joy anyone can experience.

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      Exactly Jaibala. Too many of us are apt to rebel, to retaliate and look for ways to inflict pain on those who have hurt us. We get sucked into their drama so completely that we waste our days plotting vengeance on them. The best reply to such people is to detach yourself from them and become happy in the ways that builds you up.

      So happy you read this. 🙂

      Reply
  19. Rachna

    Yet again a post that leaves one much to mull over. Whenever I read of abusive parents, of parents who walk all over their children and ruin their self esteem, it makes me terribly sad. How tragic for a child whose life in a way gets scarred. If only people would incorporate some amount of introspection and change in their own lives? I also remember the terribly testing times that I have faced in my own life, one was the suffering of my mother and her passing away. When she was bedridden, we became socially isolated. Many simple pleasures were denied to us. We pulled through because of my dad’s resilience and held the fort as we nursed her back to health only to lose her a few years later. Indeed, why are certain cards dealt to you, no one knows. What we have is our spirit, a spirit that tells you that the only way now is up because you’ve hit rock bottom. I am so grateful to my parents that they were so loving for they blessed me with a self-esteem and confidence and most importantly a balanced head that has helped me see through many sticky situations in life. I am also equally grateful for the safety net of my siblings, husband and children. My elder son is slowly becoming a friend who is wonderfully sensitive and perceptive.

    My heart really went out to Radha. Again a wonderful story, Dagny.

    Reply
    1. Dagny Post author

      I know how social isolation feels Rachna. Specially because the world is cruel. You will always find mean people who will pity you in an exaggerated and utterly insincere way and make you feel your isolation even more sharply.

      The job of parents is to empower and enable their children. It is not only to teach them how to fly but also give them the confidence that they can do it. It is terrible to see parents who pull the feathers off their offspring before pushing them rudely out of the nest.

      Yet, there are people like Chanda who do it. And they never realize the enormity of their sin either. THAT is what makes it even worse!

      I’m so happy you liked this. Thank you! <3

      Reply
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