Literature and Life, in general, are rife with vivid images of the road not taken. Physically and metaphorically. It makes the heart wallow in a pining for that which will never be ours. That narrow winding path curving into the dense brushwood against the far horizon. Ah! That curve, that bend in the road beyond which lies the unknown, the mysterious and the perilous. It beckons but it’s not for the trepid at heart. The timorous traveler stands poised at that critical make-it or break-it fork in the road, gazing longingly at the misty arc, but alas plodding practicality prevailing he wills his eyes away setting foot on the beaten track much trod upon. He picks the straight, unremarkable path that winds forward in its ordinariness; the brambles pushed aside into the thickets by multitudes of weary feet till the road loses its way into terra incognito.
It is such a road that we took that cold December day. Unremarkable in its ordinariness. The road often taken. The road we have traveled on several times. But this statement comes with a caveat; it’s been oft taken during the summer months only when the weather is fair and happy, and no brooding snow hardens the earth. We had killed the miles happily for an engagement, a wedding, a baptism, numerous friends’ reunions, and the annual North-American Bengali conference; all events naturally planned to take
place in summer. But, when love calls, notwithstanding the weather you just must respond. So, here we were on that familiar route. The I-90 East that winds from Western New York through the Catskill and Adirondack mountains with the waters of the Finger Lakes shimmering to the south.
Destination Abraham! That cute wide-eyed two-and-a-half-year-old waiting at the other end of the eight hundred-seventy-six kilometers. And his Mama and his Dada, all awaiting our arrival with feet-stomping excitement.
We are great morning managers as those who know us well and are familiar with our traveling patterns know. The alarm beeped at 4:30 a.m. like a faithful pest and by 4:45 a.m. we were huddling at the kitchen table finishing off with breakfast. We loaded the car in brief exuberant bursts with Christmas presents for the children; a puller-cooler filled with
home-made Kathi-kebabs and Shammi kebabs, taking quick breaks from the cold garage to curl our frozen fingers around our steaming cuppas animatedly discussing the imminent delight of seeing our children before the day was out and we went to bed that night. The sheer joy of it all!
At 5:30 sharp the car backed out of the driveway into the cold Canadian morning. The city lay sleeping. Not a mouse stirred, not a bird chirped. The neon street lamps shone mistily in the darkling dawn. A few lone cars sped by. Perhaps night-shifters returning home or early shifters yawning to work or a hapless man making a quick foray to pick up a bag of milk. Who knows! But I could vouch no heart behind a car-wheel was as full of mirth as mine. Within minutes we were on the Queen Elizabeth Way, speeding south-westward along Lake Ontario. That old familiar beat that I had taken for many long years to get to work till the office moved northward. Exits zoomed by and soon signs for Niagara Falls loomed on overhead displays. Nah! It’s not a day for the Falls. Much more important stuff waited. We sailed through the border. Never a busy time on a Friday morning, it
was almost eerie in its crowd-lessness. I sent one last text to Tanaya from the Canadian side advising of our latest coordinates. At the border, we answered the same tired questions, from an official bursting with self-importance: “Where are you headed?”, “When are you returning?” “What are you carrying?” Passports handed in passports handed back. Drill done we were in Onondaga County, New York.
A couple of hours flew by but the sun that should have risen by then remained hidden behind a blanket of heavy clouds painting the sky a monochromatic grey. Cloud cover is always good for driving especially when traveling eastwards, but on a winter morn, it made for a rather despondent drive. We needed to sneak a break to stretch our cramped legs, but it was hard to leave the toasty warmth of the car, pull on our jackets and brave the chill. I reminded myself – It’s winter and no roses bloom – we must face the frigid gloom.
Once back in the vehicle we were soon in Buffalo and snowflakes began to swirl against the car like playful kisses. Minutes later they were not that gentle anymore. They began to buffet the car with passionate intensity. We had been checking the weather reports for the last several days and no snow was in the forecast, but Buffalo has its own private meteorological calendar, which is whimsical, to say the least. Within seconds we realized the white stuff had been falling for a while; the I-90 stretching ahead of us was plastered with snow. Samir adjusted his speed as per the conditions.
The drift thickened. I looked in the mirror and saw an SUV following close on our tails and wished the driver would maintain a safer distance. The road was slick and treacherous, and visibility limited to just about the car in front of us. This was certainly not the road oft traveled upon. I looked out the window to my right where in the summer I would see green pastures with farmhouses scattered in the distance, maples dancing in the breeze and cattle grazing in the foreground. It was all now a sheet of white. The snow fell thickly, whitely for at least a half hour slowing down our progress considerably.
Then, just as suddenly the squall had trapped us equally abruptly, it released us, and we were in clear country as we sped along the Finger Lakes. Water bodies, on which the summer sun used to shimmer, and private boats bobbed were frozen stiff and now, with no sun to glint off it, it assumed the looks of a stretch of snowy wasteland. It would have been impossible to imagine such a scene in the height of summer and the old familiar road was now as uninviting as an exhausted host; its countenance set along unfamiliar, unsmiling lines.
It made me ponder, this journey. Is it the road itself or the storms we weather, the people we travel with, the destination we are bound for or is it the joy, the fear, the sadness that lie in our hearts as we chug along?
Like a slideshow, myriad pictures glided into the frame of my consciousness. On the I-90 headed for Tanaya’s nuptials in Boston. Excited, my sis was on this journey; disappointed, countless loved ones couldn’t make it; fearful of the wedding jewels tucked under the car seat and the food in the giant cooler. Innumerable rehearsing of answers to the questions we might be asked at the Canada-U.S. border; about valuables, about food. The time of reckoning finally arrived. The border official looked over at the vehicle stuffed with humanity, edibles, heirlooms, and hearts eager to create memories. Nervously, I prepared to open the boot. It’s our daughter’s wedding we begin to explain, he swipes our passports his face inscrutable. A hint of a smile played at the stern lips of the law and he waved us on. The car shuddered under our collective sigh of relief. The trousseau is safe. Sanity is restored and memories were firmly in the making.
Another indelible snapshot of traversing this oft-traveled highway with my parents at a time when the United States was reeling under attacks from a mysterious sniper. We missed an exit and the journey became horrendously protracted. Tired and hungry my first thought was how to reduce Ma and Baba’s exertion. We were in a leafy neighborhood, which we thought is our friends’, where we were expected to halt for the night. Samir walked up to a door to confirm and the householder caving under sniper-fear shot inside, firmly bolting his front-door. Under a giant mushroom-cloud of paranoia, a nation had forgotten to think rationally and to act with civility.
Pictures of countless journeys crowd my mind when our two children from the back seat would stretch their teenaged legs forward so I could give them a foot massage while they relaxed trying to recover from the travails of the trip. Ah! The woes of being passengers and just having to stop at regular intervals to devour one’s favorite foods. Smiling to myself, I turned my head to check if by some unexplainable phenomenon I would see the
two laconic faces in the passenger seats behind us waiting impatiently for the road to end so they could unite with their friends, take the train to New York City, and plunge wholeheartedly into the pre-planned activities. Now, they are plunged into lives of their own and I am so thankful for their happiness, for what they have carved out for themselves, the paths they choose when at the crossroads and the TripTiks they chalk out.
And … we have our own lives where we have each other and our families strewed all across the globe, our jobs. His music, my writing; our church. Then, the friends we are blessed with, real friends, not Facebook apparitions. Friends, who at the drop of the proverbial hat, invite us over for super delicious dessert and a game of scrabble, friends with whom we often share a meal, Facetime, chat about life, about gardening, about books we read, the songs and films we enjoy and uphold each other in many more ways than we ourselves can ever imagine. Indeed, what would we do without such delightful co-travelers?
If the purpose of life is to be happy, then that happiness must stem from within us; it would be sheer folly to allow anyone else the authorship of our happiness, even our children because such a burden might stifle or even suffocate them. Recently, someone I have known for eons placed a perspective on modern motherhood. Her children reside far from her on distant continents. They call her often and when they are about to hang-up, they ask their mother once the line is disconnected if their mother had something to do. They ask out of love and concern. They are anxious that when the call ended their mother would be consigned to a forlorn fortress of “nothing-to-do”. With much relish, my friend said that she not only had much to do but she was eagerly waiting to do all those things after the kids hung up. The things that occupied her defined her, not anyone or anything else. I smiled at the confidence and joy in her independent voice. Here was a woman who held her happiness proudly in the palm of her hands.
In the end, it does not matter if I were indeed that timorous traveler who picked that road with the brambles firmly pushed aside. The road does not always determine the destination. Many years ago as a child, I was holidaying in the country with my family. While strolling through the red earth of the central provinces of India we came upon a road that veered off the beaten track. It was covered with thick bushes. We saw a group of youth trying to cut a path through the overgrowth, a short cut to reach the shores of a lake, they said. They thrashed around, the callow youth, tiny glimpses of the shining waters in the distance making them attack the thickets with renewed vigor. I stood watching them wonder-struck at their enthusiasm when Baba, standing at a spot parallel to where the young fellows were thus insanely engaged, motioned to me. He moved aside when I reached him and with a fluid motion of his hand he pushed aside a curtain of palm fronds. Immediately behind was revealed a very narrow sandy pathway, completely unobstructed, leading straight down to the emerald lake. Whooping with amazed delight I careened down the narrow road, the scythes of the blinkered young men echoing in my ears.
Samir swerved into a rest area jolting me out of my reverie. We needed to fill up. Some coffee might be in order too. The Garmin on the dash told me we would enter the home stretch soon. I glanced in the rear-view mirror. A sudden sun emerging from behind the clouds had swallowed up the I-90 behind us in one blazing gulp.