Three years ago…
The night air was nippy and there was not a soul on the dusty street. A lone, dusty, flyblown, dim street lamp had all but given up fighting a losing battle with the enshrouding darkness.
The woman, in her early twenties, was making heavy weather of walking through the dark and cold night, while carrying against her heaving chest something wrapped in a soiled, tattered, and threadbare piece of cloth, which, in its halcyon days, must have been a colourful bed sheet. She seemed to be in great pain but trudged on heavily towards her destination.
…and finally reached it.
The aroma of the agarbattis burning on a small bedside table, the fragrance of the petals strewn romantically over the bed, the languorous swaying of the colourful garlands festooned on the bedstead, the sensual dim blue night lamp, and, above all, the amorous ambience in the room were pervading the very souls of the two occupants of the bridal bedroom.
“Is it okay if we don’t consummate our marriage now, this night, Prateek?”
“What?” Prateek was surprised.
“I mean, if we could take some precautions…”
“I have no issues with that, Urmila, but…” He hesitated.
“I’m not pushing for…it. But I’d like to know the reason, if you don’t mind.”
Urmila laughed gently and roughed up her husband’s hair.
“Of course, you silly fellow, you have every right to know.”
Doubts and discomfiture allayed, Prateek held her hand and smiled.
“Prateek, we haven’t had any time for ourselves before the wedding. We have to talk about an important issue before…you know…”
Prateek nodded and said gently, “Urmi, we are going to be together for life. I am not worried about tonight, tomorrow, or some other day. We must understand each other well. So, we must talk. Right, go ahead, darling.”
“I am happy you understand, dear.”
“We are married and will eventually have children, won’t we?”
“Of course, Urmi, but not if we…don’t…” His voice trailed off mischievously.
“Don’t be naughty, Prateek. Listen to me,” Urmila said in mock anger.
“I have always been thinking about it. To have a child, is it essential to give birth to it?”
“I don’t get you.”
“Must the child be born out of your sperm and my egg, from my womb?”
Prateek fell speechless.
“What? You look shocked. Was I crude, brazen, or very direct?”
“Not shocked but surely surprised.”
“That’s fair. What say you?”
“How else can we get our child?”
She paused for a moment. “We could adopt one. Don’t be shocked, Prateek.”
“See, I shocked you.”
“You certainly did!”
“Will a child be ours if and only if I conceive it?”
“Of course, Urmi.”
“When we have strong bonding with a child as our own child, won’t that be sufficient?”
“Urmi, in our social life we meet the children of our friends and relatives. We even bond strongly with them. Do we feel that they are our children?”
“No, because they have their parents and we know they’ll return to their homes after a short stay; we meet them, play with them, cuddle them and then they go back. But if we raise a child full-time, nurture it, feed it, and take care of it as our own?”
“What about the emotional bonding, Urmi?”
“Does that come only through umbilical cord bonding?”
“I think so, yes.”
‘Bye, my darling. I pray to God Almighty to give you a better life. You will not know me, your mother, ever. When you grow up, do not hate me for what I have done today. Think of me as a helpless woman who couldn’t have given you even the most basic needs of your life, as a woman who preferred to give you up so that you would have a better chance at life than let you go through the travails of life, of being called an illegitimate child, a bastard. I hope, one day, you will understand. As for me, I may continue living my worthless life or end it, time alone will tell. My undying love to you my little angel. God bless you.’
She placed the sleeping infant girl on the doorstep of the sleeping orphanage, adjusted the tattered wrap around the baby, planted a final, loving kiss on her daughter’s cheek and ran away into the darkness without looking back.
There was silence between them for a few moments.
“Urmi, this is our first night. Why are we even discussing such things?”
“Because I feel strongly about the issue, darling, and this is the most crucial time of our lives. I hope you won’t misunderstand me.”
“No, dear, not at all. Still…”
“You know, Prateek, there are millions of children out there who have lost their parents, the love, affection, and cuddling of parents, of a family.”
“I know, but we can’t help them all, can we?”
“Not all, Prateek, only one. We can give it life, love, and affection.”
“How does that solve the…problem? It is humongous, you know.”
“True, but we can give family life to one child at least, can’t we?”
Prateek did not answer.
“If every married couple wants to have its own child who will think of the…the – God, how I hate the word – orphans?”
“What is wrong in it? They are not committing a crime if they think so, are they?”
“No, Prateek, certainly not.”
“Why should only – another painful word – barren couples think of adoption? Why can’t normal couples adopt? Celebrities have done it, even unmarried single celebrities. They have given life to those children. The world is a happier place, a better place for their compassionate act, isn’t it?”
Prateek was very uncomfortable with the line of discussion, that, too, on their first night.
“Won’t the society, our friends, our relatives think that there is some problem with one of us?”
“How does it matter, Prateek? In God’s eyes, we are doing something noble. He will bless us and so will all right-thinking people.”
There was an uncomfortable silence between them for a minute.
“Urmila, is there something wrong with you?” Prateek blurted out.
“You heard me.”
“Do you think that I am pushing to adopt a child because I have a problem? Do you really believe that, Prateek?”
“No, I don’t. You’ve been frank. I’ve been frank. It’s a simple question. There’s nothing wrong with me. What about you?”
“Frankly? No. I am sorry you are thinking along those lines. My feelings on this issue are genuine and strong. I hoped you’d understand.”
“Darling, don’t get me wrong; I do understand but this is something that I can’t compromise with. I mean, where is the need for it? You and I are fine. It would have been different if we were not. Even in that case there are so many corrective clinical procedures available today.”
Urmila did not respond.
“Why don’t my mother and father come to see me?”
Titli asked the question for the millionth time and it went unanswered for the millionth time. Annapurna felt sad for the little girl.
“Why don’t they come to see me, aunty?” Titli repeated the question.
“I don’t know, Titli.”
“How can you not know, aunty, you know everything.”
Annapurna did not wish to hurt the gentle feelings of the girl. ‘Oh God! What shall I say?’ she thought.
“I am sure they will come, dear.”
“One day, dear, some day, soon,” Annapurna said. ‘I hope,’ she thought.
“Why do people indulge in charity, Prateek?”
“People give small change, old clothes, and free food to the beggars and the poor…that kind of thing. Why?”
“To help them.”
“Does it really help or solve their problem?”
“Not really. Still…” He replied hesitatingly.
“Afterwards, the fellows are back to square one, aren’t they?”
Prateek did not answer.
“Similarly, people go to orphanages on important days of their life – birthdays, wedding anniversaries – and distribute sweets, food, clothes, and other things. What happens afterwards? Is the problem of even one child solved permanently?”
“Urmila, people do what they can. They may not be able to do all that the children need.”
“If we have our own child, won’t we take care of all the needs, at least most of them? Those resources can be spent on an adopted child, too, for life.”
With her head in his lap and her long, slender fingers in his hair she asked, “Prateek, you said that your uncle and aunt adopted a boy a few years ago.”
“Yes, my paternal uncle and aunt. They are married for fifteen years. Aunt had a problem in conceiving. They tried all possible means – best gynaecologists, physicians, native medicines, religious rituals, temples,dargahs, and churches – but failed. Ultimately, they adopted a five-year old boy a few years ago.”
“I met them in our wedding. Can we visit them tomorrow?”
“Sure.” He paused. “Is it on this issue?”
“Yes, I want to know their feelings.”
He pondered for a few moments before replying.
They were silent for a couple of minutes.
“Are you angry with me?” Urmila coyly whispered in her husband’s ear.
“No, you silly girl, why would…”
“Prove it.” Again the whisper.
“But…but you said…”
“Did I say you can’t kiss me, you dolt?” Urmila whispered conspiratorially.
“Aunty, aunty, aunty…they are taking Cinderella away,” Titli shouted tugging at Annapurna’s hand.
“Stop them, please, aunty, stop them.”
Annapurna smiled and shook her head.
“Who are they, aunty? Where are they taking her? Why aren’t you stopping? With whom will I…”
Annapurna gently shut Titli’s mouth with her palm, smiled and said, “They are Cinderella’s mummy and daddy, dear. Cinderella is going home with them.”
She could see tears in the innocent girl’s eyes. ‘Oh God! How can I explain to her what adoption is?’
Titli lifted her face up and looked into Annapurna’s eyes the question in her heart unasked. Annapurna pressed the little girl’s head into her abdomen so that the girl’s sobs won’t reach her ears.
“Tea is fine, aunty. We are fed up with the heavy food we have been eating since the wedding.” Urmila politely declined the offer of sweets and snacks.
Vandana smiled and poured tea for the four of them. Prateek was busy in light-hearted talk with his uncle Kumar.
After the pleasantries, Urmila broached the subject.
“I don’t see Vicky, aunty?”
“He is in school; will return around four o’clock.”
“Aunty, if you don’t think otherwise I’d like to know about Vicky. I believe he is your adopted son.”
Suppressing the expression of surprise, Vandana replied in a soft monotone.
“Yes, Urmila, he is. I was unable to conceive owing to a problem. There was nothing that we did not try. Every effort failed. Our married life went on like that for fifteen years. Then we decided to adopt a child. We went through the long and arduous process of adoption. It took about a year. Finally, we brought home Vikram.” For a few moments, she was lost in fond memories. “He is our life now. He was about five when we adopted him. He was aware of what was going on but he adjusted to us – and we to him – quickly. Now, I doubt whether I would have been happier with a son born of my womb. Our sun rises and sets on our son. We dote on him and he is devoted to us. We ought to have renamed him Shravan,” Vandana chuckled.
“One very personal question, aunty. Don’t get offended.”
“Go on, dear.”
“After…you adopted Vicky, did you or uncle ever feel that…it was a…mistake, that your own child would have been correct, that it was acompromise? Having your own child would have been…different…would have made you happier?”
Vandana smiled. “I don’t know why you are asking all these questions. Still, I’ll answer. True, we had no option. After seeing and spending time with Vikram in the orphanage, we liked him immensely. He was mild, soft-spoken, and respectful – he still is. We took to him instantly. He was like a…a…a magnet; all children are. We decided it was he and none else. After about a year, he came home and became a part of the family. From that day, we never felt it was a compromise or mistake. I am not sure we would have been happier if we had our own child.”
Urmila smiled sheepishly and said, “Thanks, aunty. Sorry, if I bothered you.”
“You heard what Vandana aunty said, didn’t you, Prateek?”
“What do you think?”
“Look, Urmi, their case is different; they had a problem. She couldn’t conceive. They had no option. But us? Our case is different.”
“Only in that, that we don’t have any problem.”
“That is important, isn’t it?”
They had light lunch in a restaurant before Prateek dropped Urmila at home.
“I have some work, dear. I’ll be back soon.”
“What work? We were married only yesterday!”
“Sorry, dear, will come back and tell you, okay?”
She sighed. “Okay.”
“Titli, what are you doing sitting here all by yourself?’
Titli was sitting on the window ledge holding the iron bars with her tiny hands and looking at the garden in the front of the rickety building of her home, the orphanage. Some boys and girls were playing “Ring-a-ring o’ roses”.
“Why aren’t you playing with them, dear?”
Titli just shook her head and continued to stare at her friends through the window.
“Titli, are you all right?”
“I am waiting for my mummy and daddy.”
Prateek returned after about two hours.
“Are you all right, darling?” Urmila inquired.
“Yeah, why are you asking?”
“You look kind of distant, that’s all. You are late. Where were you?”
“Last night I was thinking about what you said. Vandana auntie’s feelings and sentiments touched my heart. While returning from auntie’s home I saw an orphanage, I am sorry, a children’s home.”
“I went there to see and personally experience what it is like. I met the principal, manager, or whatever and had a long discussion with her. I saw the children from a distance while they were studying.” He paused. “I am a changed man, Urmi, thanks to you. I agree with you. Every word of yours is true. To put it simply, if people like us think of helping such children, the world would be a better place to live in and, incidentally, we’ll be cleansing our souls, too.”
Urmila was stunned speechless. When she spoke after a few moments, she was blabbering.
“Are you…you mean, you are…serious? I mean, you are serious, aren’t you?”
Prateek smiled. “Yes, sweetheart, my heart went out for those little children. The principal madam is the mother, father, and friend, in fact, everything for them. She takes care of them wonderfully, showers abundant love on them. Still, it is sad that they are deprived of parental care, of familial bonding. What’s their fault in all this? None. People like us can remedy the situation, one child at a time. That is the least we could do to the society, which has given us so much.”
Urmila hugged her husband and wiped his tears with her lips.
“Yes, sweetheart, we will adopt a child. I cannot think of anything else.”
“What about our parents, Prateek?”
“We shall convince them. They’ll come round. Otherwise, it is our life, our decision, right?”
“Right. How long will it all take?”
“Oh, it is a long process with long waiting period, anything from six months to two years even. But we will do it, won’t we?”
“What if I get pregnant…”
“We’ll take precautions.”
“I’ll undergo vasectomy.”
“What if we really want another child?”
“We will adopt that one, too.”
“I love you, Prateek, I love you with my whole heart.”
“Hey, keep something apart for our daughter we are going to bring home.”
“Really?” Urmila almost shouted.
“Do you want the entire household to know?”
“Sorry, sorry. Daughter?”
“There is this girl. I didn’t meet her but saw her studying and chatting with her friends. She’s like…what Vandana aunty said, a magnet. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I can’t describe; you must see her.” He paused. “Shall we go?”
Urmila was already running out of the room.
Angel was chasing Titli all over the compound and Titli was dodging Angel. They were shouting at the top of their lungs.
“You can’t catch me. You can’t catch me.”
Neither of them saw a car turn into the premises and stop in a corner. A young man and woman got down and started walking towards the building.
“You can’t catch me. You can’t catch me. You can’t… …”
Titli dashed into the young woman and both of them collapsed to the ground.
They got out of the car after Prateek parked it in a corner of the premises that displayed a small signboard “ANNAPURNA’S HOME FOR CHILDREN”. Urmila had an excited look on her face as she walked towards the small, nondescript edifice. Prateek smiled and followed her. There was a lawn and a small but well-tended garden with a few varieties of roses, hibiscuses, and marigolds. The lawn was neatly trimmed. The entire open space surrounding the building was clean and litter-free.
They could hear sounds of some children shouting and playing.
“You can’t catch me. You can’t catch me. You can’t… …”
A girl dashed into Urmila and both fell to the ground.
“Sorry, madam, I didn’t see you. Angel is chasing me. We are playing catch me.”
Urmila got up dusting her sari and hands. Angel ran away from the scene into the building.
“Are you okay, honey?” Prateek asked his wife.
“I’m fine, Prateek, I’m fine.”
“This is the girl I spoke of,” Prateek whispered in Urmila’s ear.
“How are you, dear” She asked the little girl who was dusting her frock, hands, and legs. Urmila took a long look at the girl.
‘Yes, she is a magnet!’
She was about three or four years old. She was thin, light tan in complexion, and tall for her age. She wore her well-oiled hair in two tight braids. Although the girl was smiling sheepishly, Urmila could see a kind of intensity and sadness in her eyes. Urmila was surprised to find her own eyes welling with tears.
“What is your name?”
“Really! That’s a…beautiful name, so apt for you. Come here, dear.” Urmila hugged Titli and planted kisses on her cheeks. “Titli, where can I find your principal?”
“Come with me, madam, I’ll show you.” Titli held Urmila’s hand and guided her to Ms. Annapurna’s room.
Fifteen months later…
“Titli, see who has come for you!”
“Who is it, aunty?”
“Your mother and father have come to take you home, sweetheart.”
Titli ran blindly and crashed into the lap of Urmila.
…by Shyam Sundar Bulusu