This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
Doorbell rang. I opened the door. Wearing a serene smile, it was him.
“Namaste!” He said. A little girl, holding his little finger, peeped from behind him.
Three Years Ago…
“Welcome, Saabji. We have been waiting for you.” Bhola welcomed us with a warm Namaste. His wife, Lakshmi, greeted from near the kitchen as we went in.
“Hey, Bhola! How have you been?” I was excited about seeing him in years.
“I am good sir. How are you?” he asked.
“I am good too. I am sorry; I had heard about your wife’s miscarriage. Dad had informed me. I could not visit you at that time because my daughter was born just a week ago. I’m sorry.” I said and hugged him. He retracted.
“Saabji, what are you doing? You are our maalik.” He seemed uncomfortable with the break-through hug.
“Come on Bhola. We have played together as kids, as friends. Growing up should not alter how friends behave. Right?” I tapped on his shoulder.
He nodded and said, “It was destined to happen, so it happened. And anyway it has been six years. We have a healthy son since then. Piklu, come here. Go, take blessings from maalik.”
The little Piklu emerged from behind his mother. In white sleeveless dusty vest and red shorts, he walked cutely to me and touched my feet. I picked him up and kissed on his chubby cheeks.
“You don’t need to do that champ. We are buddies.” I told him and proposed a high five.
He seemed to have liked the airiness. On his way back to the shield behind his mother, he grinned and looked at Bhola as if saying, ‘See dad, he may be maalik to you, but to me, he is my buddy.’
“And Bhola, don’t call me Saabji. Call me Rohan.” I said as I sat on the cot to relax.
“I cannot do that. I will address you as Rohan Saab, at least.”
Having run out of options, I nodded in approval. Bhola smiled.
In his times, my grandfather was the head, the sarpanch, of Sharvari – our familial village. Deferring from the legacy and against the consensus of my grandfather, my father had left the village to move to the city in his teens; nothing other than his aspirations to build a business went along. In the years that came, daddy’s hard work, talent and luck, granted him what he had always dreamed of, a little empire of his own.
Since my grandfather’s demise, our connection with the village was limited only to dad’s annual visit to see Shambhu kaka and give him sufficient cash that would last for a year for him, Leela kaki – his wife and his son, Bhola. Shambhu kaka was the caretaker of acres of our ancestral land and a couple of our houses in Sharvari, since forever. Shambhu kaka passed away a few years back and Bhola filled his shoes for us.
Twenty two years back, when I last visited Sharvari with dad in the summer vacations, Bhola was fourteen; I was twelve. Those ten days that I spent in the middle of untainted nature were to stay with me forever. The alarm-free mornings, hassle-free evenings and carefree lives magnetized me even as a child. I had thanked my dad for introducing me to the existence of such a way of life.
Two decades later, it was my turn to be a daddy to be thanked. I suggested Aashka, my wife, a trip to Sharvari during our little girl’s school holidays. Being six, I thought, Trisha was old enough to understand where all the luxury that she enjoyed, was born from. I wanted her to see how people live, and live happily, without any of the comforts that she possessed.
I wanted her to be in their boots and feel our roots.
“Bhola, we will go to the banyan tree where we used to play all afternoon. I hope it is still as lovely place as it was.” I said excitedly.
“Yes. It is still as beautiful, if not more.” He said.
“You must see that place Aashka. It is a huge tree with the prop roots as thick as drums. Birds would tweet all day long. Rabbits play freely. The river flows right next to it. Grassy ground spreads calming scent where butterflies paint a picture of their own. The Shiva temple adds more peace to the ambiance. Beautiful!” I was ecstatic.
“Let’s go papa. I want to see the banyan tree. I have only seen it in the books. I want to go. Let’s go now.” Trisha matched my thrill.
“Yes baby. Let us freshen up and we will go. You’ll love playing there. It is a hot day but still the dense tree keeps it really cool. You’ll love it.” I said and kissed Trisha.
“I love you daddy.” She said and kissed me back.
“Meanwhile Lakshmi will prepare lunch.” Bhola suggested. Lakshmi nodded.
Piklu popped out from behind the shield. “I want to come too.”
“Of course, Piklu, how can I go anywhere without you. What would I do without you? We will have fun. But you will stay good. No mischief! Promise me.” Bhola said. Piklu jumped up to Bhola’s shoulders.
“Bhola, you are a good father.” I said. He smiled.
“You were right Rohan. This place is magical. Look at these roots. How old is this tree?” Aashka asked me.
Eye to eye, I handed over the question to Bhola.
“This tree is at least two hundred years old Memsab. It has got the esteem of an elderly in our village. And the Vardaayini river that you see right here is a boon to our village. Our farming largely depends on her. We worship her on every full moon night, the poornima. In their difficult times, people even from villages far away come and pray. Vardaayini defines the fate of our village and the villagers; we firmly believe. She has never let us down.” He said proudly and continued.
“The Shiva temple was founded by your grandfather Rohan Saab. My father used to take care of the temple until he passed away. Now I do.”
“I did not know most of this. It is great to know that my roots belong to such a mesmerizing land.” I said gratefully.
“Trisha, come here, look at this little rabbit. How cute she is. Wow!” Aashka was thrilled in her own world wandering around while Trisha and Piklu were busy chasing the butterflies.
After about an hour of sheer fun, Trisha said, “Daddy, I am hungry”.
“Maalik, why don’t you all go back home and get ready for lunch. I have some routine to perform at the temple. Piklu and I will join you at home soon.” Bhola said.
Treasuring the beauty of the place, we headed back. How badly we wished to have such a place to unwind in the daily city life.
Just as Lakshmi scooped a ladle to serve us mango pulp, a petite, semi-bald guy came rushing. Hardly able to breathe, bent with his palms on knees, he could just say, “Bhabhi…”
“What happened, Amrat? Why are you so exhausted?” Lakshmi asked.
He gathered his breath and said, “Bhola is drowning in the river.”
“What???” Lakshmi and I said in one voice. In a jiffy, she threw the ladle away and stormed out. Amrat and I followed her. Aashka held Trisha and trailed me.
On our way to the banyan tree, Amrat answered our whats and hows. He was passing by when he heard a loud splash in the river. Upon checking, he found it was Bhola. He tried to extend a hand of help but could not reach Bhola, so he ran to inform Lakshmi and call others for help.
A lot of people had already gathered near the river by the time we reached.
“Bhola…. Bhola….” Lakshmi shouted her lungs out and started going in the stream.
Aashka and other women held her back.
The river was flowing with deadly current. Most of us ran the length along the river to find a clue about Bhola. Having run hundreds of meters from the banyan tree, I saw Bhola, sitting quietly by the river, drenched in water. He was sitting as calmly as if nothing had happened. Water dripped from his hair. He was looking at the river’s tide but he did not even blink. His expressions were painfully plain.
“Bhola? Bhola!” I put my arms around him and sat beside him. I was exhausted.
He did not blink. No expression, no words.
“Bhola. Thank God you are fine.” I said.
He looked at me, still not blinking. He looked back at the river and said, “She swallowed my Piklu.”
Chills ran through my spine and… I could not blink.
Three days had passed. We had postponed going back.
Bhola had somehow managed to recount that after we left, while Piklu and he were in the temple, out of his notice, Piklu had gone near the river in quest of a butterfly. While butterfly flew above the tide, Piklu stepped in the heavy flow. He tumbled and got dragged in. On discovering, Bhola ran crazily and jumped into the river only to realize later that it was too late when he swam back to the riverbank. Even Piklu’s body could not be salvaged.
“Saabji, I must be deserving of this.” Bhola said.
“Shut up Bhola.” I said.
“God must be doing everything for a reason.” He said firmly.
He was too meek to accept this as God’s wish and take it into his stride. There was a lot to learn from him. He had raised my respect for him. But even impartially, it was too much for someone to be deserving of such throbbing. He had lost his only child. No matter how much I try to imagine, I could not relate to the pain he must be feeling.
The pain in his eyes was unbounded. It exhibited the loss of a hope, the loss of something that you loved the most in the entire world. Sensation in his eyes baffled me.
The Day When He Replenished…
Doorbell rang. I opened the door. Wearing a serene smile, it was him.
“Namaste!” He said. A little girl, holding his little finger, peeped from behind him.
“Bhola!? Come in. Come in!” I welcomed them in to the living room.
Aashka was already there helping Trisha with her homework. She welcomed the guests with a warm smile.
“Good to see you, Bhola; and who is this pretty little girl?” I asked.
“Good to see you too, Saab. This is Chhutki.” Bhola said while he sat on the floor near the sofa. Chhutki followed him.
“Hey, why are you sitting on the ground? Sit here.” I said. He refrained.
“Come on.” I held him by his arms suggesting getting up.
Hesitantly, he sat on the sofa’s edge. Chhutki sat on his lap.
“Is everything alright? How come you had to come all of a sudden?” I asked.
He looked up to me and said, “Saabji, I am here to confess something; something that has not let me sleep for years.”
Aashka’s ears lit up. She sent Trisha in the bedroom; came and sat beside me.
“Yes?” I said.
“Saabji, your visit to Sharvari three years back had to end with gruesome news. I am sorry about it. But I think I know why it happened. God knew what he was doing. It was probably his way of teaching me a lesson; a vital lesson.”
“Bhola, you are scaring me now. Please tell me what is the matter clearly; and quickly.” My patience was running out with the buildup.
Bhola took a deep breath and said, “Do you remember the time when Lakshmi had a miscarriage many years back?”
“Yes!” Aashka and I said together.
“It was not a miscarriage. It was an abortion. We chose to do it, because she was a Girl!”
It hit me on the face. My eyes widened and heart thumped.
“What????” Aashka shouted to the extent that Chhutki got scared.
“I know Memsab, and Saab. You have got all the right to be disappointed with me. But please listen to me. I have gathered courage for years to come up to you to confess this. I don’t know why my morality wanted to do it; probably, because of the faith you had in me as a person, as a father. I do not deserve it.”
“Have you come to justify this Bhola? You have let me down, big time.” I said in anger.
“I cannot justify this maalik. I never can. And I don’t want to. I had grown up in the society where a girl was never perceived just as a human. She was nothing more than a burden. She was a liability. She was never someone to love. I was surrounded by people who influenced me and convinced me to do something that no human can, or should, do. This still doesn’t defend my hideous act. My reasons were not convincing to the almighty too.” He took a moment before carrying on.
“Someone up there has got his own ways to balance things. He is the puppet master. He is the juggler. He has his own process to make us make up for our cruel deeds. He has his own methods to establish that a girl is as worthy of a life and love as a boy is. If she can’t do it, he can’t do it.” Tears that had been holding on to his eyelids for long, finally dribbled on the thought of Piklu.
“What happened to Piklu was awfully unfortunate, Bhola. But what you intentionally did to your unborn daughter was unparalleled, unexplainable and unforgivable.” I said as Aashka lost her cool and blasted.
“Do you know what could that little soul have been had she been given a chance to be born? She could have been your strength when you needed the most. She could have been, proudly, your weakness in everything you did. You could have been her hero and she could have been your princess. She could have reached the stars and still would have her feet on the ground. She could have made you proud with everything she did. She could have been your inspiration. She could have been naughty as thief and sane as a saint. She could have been your sword, scabbard and the shield. She could have been your confidant. She could have been someone to fight with and to fight for. She could have been by your deathbed kissing your forehead when no one else cared. She could have done all that and a lot beyond words, only if she was allowed to be born.” Making its way through the anger in her eyes, a tear rolled down Aashka’s cheek.
Silence enveloped everything for a while.
With folded hands Bhola said, “Memsab, you are completely right. Only when I saw Saabji with Trisha baby, I realized what I was missing as a father. Something that could have been mine, I had ruined it with my own hands that were stained with my own baby’s blood. And I paid for it by losing another child of mine. I cannot deny God’s order of balance. Who am I to choose who should be born and who not?”
“Yes you are nobody. No one is anybody to choose that.” I said firmly.
“I know nothing can make up for what I did. But to soothe my guilt, I did something two years back. This little girl, Chhutki, is my neighbor’s daughter by birth. She was born twin with her brother. I got to know that they were going to get rid of her sooner or later. Before it was too late, I went up to them and… adopted her. She is my daughter now, proudly. She is my daughter, by choice. She will be my only child for life. There has not been anything more satisfying that I have done, and there won’t be anything ever.” With his palm on Chhutki’s head, he continued.
“I would never be able to get out of that hollow Saabji. The trust you had on my goodness was killing me. I had restless nights for months. I adopted her for solace to my soul’s scars. I have been spreading awareness about how beautiful a daughter could be ever since I realized myself. I have been trying to persuade village’s narrow minds to open up and believe that girls deserve equal at least, if not more. And I have seen a ray of trust. The day will come when there will be no more fathers as a ‘Bhola’.” He said with a hopeful smile and he kissed Chhutki.
I could feel genuine remorse in his voice and eyes. He really looked like a proud and happy father of a daughter. He had reformed. It dissolved my anger somewhat.
“Repentance is the first sign of your intent to replenish the hole that you have dug, Bhola. I know I can never forgive you for what you did. But I cannot stop from praising you for reemergence of your righteousness either. Even God gives a second chance. Who are we not to forgive you, right?” I looked at Aashka; she nodded in agreement.
“Despite what you did, merely for what you are today, I really wish there are more fathers like ‘Bhola’. You will make a great father to Chhutki. She will feel lucky to have you when she grows up.” I said.
“Mom, I have finished my homework. Can I play now?” Trisha came from a different world.
“Trisha, this is Chhutki. Why don’t you give her your dolls and toys to play?” Aashka said.
“Sure. Come Chhutki, I will give you my favorite Barbie.” Trisha offered a hand and a smile to Chhutki.
Our dolls went in to play with their dolls.
“Thank you, maalik for everything. Huge burden has gone off my shoulders today. Your heart is really big.” Bhola stood up and joined palms to thank which had a mammoth ‘Sorry’ wrapped around it.
“Forget it Bhola. With a daughter’s birth, a father is born too. Start afresh and you will only get better from here.” I extended my arms and for the first time he hugged me back snugly. His warm tears soaked my shoulder.