Scars are souvenirs you never lose.
Leela looked at the scar on her right arm. It was starting to get lost in the wrinkles that now covered her entire hands. Leela was 82, sitting at the window of her room at the old age shelter, a place she had moved to after her husband passed.
She had no regrets- well, that’s a lie. She did. She regretted taking Ritu to the tree. Leela and Ritu were ten years old when they went into the woods to see Leela’s favourite place on earth- a tree with a hollow trunk. Leela went for a picnic with her parents one day, when she wandered off and found this tree- no fruits, no leaves-just the trunk. As soon as she laid her eyes on it, she decided that it was special and would remain so, at least to her.
She thought she’d keep it a secret but she couldn’t hide anything from Ritu. As soon as she told her about this, Ritu wanted to visit the place. So, the girls decided they would go. They had everything planned out, from the excuses they would tell their mothers to the snacks they would take for their little adventure.
One morning, Leela remembered it to be the 18th of April, the girls woke early and packed tiny baskets of food and told their mothers they would be home by afternoon as they were taking a long walk- just the two of them, so they could spend some time together before Ritu leaves town the next morning.
Ritu’s father was transferred to another city so they were moving away. The girls cried endlessly about this. They only had each other and the mere thought of separation felt like thorns in their hearts. So, as a good bye present, Leela decided she would take Ritu to the tree.
They walked and giggled and ran and giggled again until they finally reached the tree. Upon looking at it, Ritu was spellbound at its beauty. Sure, she thought it was peculiar, not having any leaves and all but it was beautiful nonetheless.
Soon, the girls set up camp under the tree and started to nibble on the snacks they had brought and were talking. After all topics of discussion have been broached and after both the baskets were empty, Ritu suddenly stood up and started to climb up the tree.
Leela, surprised, told her to get down immediately but Ritu would not listen. Instead, Ritu called her a wuss for not joining her in climbing the tree. Enraged, Leela joined her. When Leela was halfway up the tree, she saw that Ritu had already sat on a high branch and was waiting for Leela to join her.
Leela almost reached her friend when she heard a cracking sound from above and looked up only to see that the branch on which Ritu was sitting had broken and Leela saw Ritu fall to her death. Overcome by panic, Leela jumped too. She landed hard on her side, her arm hitting the branches.
Though hurt, Leela ran towards Ritu to find her surrounded by a pool of blood. She tried to wake her up, but in vain. With aching legs and a profusely bleeding arm, Leela ran out of the woods and into the town, to get help. The locals came rushing to help, but it was too late. Ritu had already passed away.
Grief struck and numb, Leela was taken home by the locals. Leela vaguely remembers her mother dressing her wounds and doctor rushing in to suture her arm. Ritu’s parents came later in the evening to call Leela a murderer, when Leela’s mother defended her saying she was only a child and she couldn’t have done anything else.
As much as Leela wanted to believe her mother, she couldn’t. In her mind, she would always be a person who let her friend die. She thought she was definitely deserving of being called a murderer.
In the years that followed, Leela drowned in grief, guilt and regret. When she learned in biology that trees that are dead don’t have any fruits or leaves, she had cursed herself for not knowing about it earlier. Cursing herself was the least of all evils. In her teenage years, Leela would cut herself and watch the blood slowly bleed out as she tried to calm the demons. Every night, she would cry herself to sleep.
A few more years later, she got married. On the day of the wedding, she went up to her to-be husband, Varun, and told him everything- what had happened and how she suffered and still continues to do so. After she finished, Varun took her hands into his and said, “You are the bravest person I know.” Leela was surprised to hear this and she looked up to see Varun’s eyes filled with something she had always dreamed of seeing- understanding and empathy. That day, was the day Leela was genuinely happy for the first time in 18 years.
But she knew she had to do her penance. But she didn’t know how.
Then, she had kids. She cared a lot about them. A little more than any usual parent did. She never let them climb up the trees and never let them out of her sight. As her kids started to grow older, they often told her to give them their space, not to smother and suffocate them. They sometimes thought she was mad. But, little did they know that this was all a part of her penance. And, she couldn’t tell them.
She didn’t want her kids to know. She didn’t want them to think of her as a person who was stupid, as someone who wouldn’t stand her ground and as a person who couldn’t deal with her emotions. She wanted to be a strong person, for herself, for her family and her kids. But, she couldn’t shut her demons out or drown them. To her, they were invincible.
But, Varun understood. He always did. He never said a word against her. Only once did he tell her to stop behaving like this or the kids would start to hate her, when she looked in him in the eye and told him she had to do this and that it was a part of her penance. After that, he never said anything else. He was also not the kind of person who would tell his wife, ‘I told you so’. Even when the kids complained about their mother, Varun would just tell them that their mother had her reasons.
Leela’s kids grew up and eventually left her in pursuit of their life. She constantly worried about them but she hardly let it show these days. From her late twenties, she had found her comfort in Varun. And who knew that he would teach her how to deal with her paranoia and worry!
In her late seventies, Varun passed away. She had a hard time dealing with this situation. But, once again, she fought through it and lived. It was then that she realized that all her life, Varun was preparing her for this moment, as if he somehow knew that he would die before she did. And then, she fell in love with him all over again.
She moved to the old age shelter as she couldn’t live in the house she had shared with Varun. There were too many memories etched in its walls. Before moving out, Leela took a walk around the house to breathe in and memorize as much as she could of the place she called home. She finally stood in front of the mirror and looked at herself. She could see the wrinkles, the freckles and the lines. A week before Varun died, he told her that she was beautiful to him with laughter lines or scars.
Dabbing at the tears welling up in her eyes, Leela looked at the clock and realized it was bed time. Before lying down, she finally thought about Ritu, about how different things would have been, had Ritu lived.
And then, Leela thought about grief. About how it can change a person, mould them into an entirely different person, someone they never imagined they would be, in the blink of an eye. Leela then closed her eyes, never to open them again, as the volunteer at the shelter would discover, the following morning. The volunteer would also find a piece of paper on her bedside table and on it, scribbled the words:
You are beautiful, even with your scars.