At the tender age of twelve, Shalabh came to know that he wasn’t the biological son of his mother, Asha.
At once many questions were answered.
Why Neelabh got a chocolate from Uncle Hari everyday while Shalabh was never even asked if he too wanted one. Why Dadaji showered Neelabh with so many toys when the only toy Shalabh had was a broken car he had once found in the waste-basket. Why Dimple, Uncle Hari’s wife, stopped her children, Ritul and Richa, from playing with him. Most of all, why mother never kissed him on the forehead while sleeping as she did to Neelabh.
Everything was so clear.
Rao Vasu Kumar overcame his poverty and established a well known name in the cloth industry. His sons – Rajesh and Harish, inherited not only his business, but also the benevolence and humility which were widely acknowledged features of Rao.
Raju and Hari, became his pride.
Business flourished. And the sons got married. Neelabh was born to Asha and Raju and Rao Vasu thought that nothing can go wrong.
But things did go wrong. And that too how!
A woman named Sarla turned to their doorstep one day, carrying an infant with her.
She claimed that the infant belonged to Raju.
There had been tight-lipped rumours in the city a while then. About Rajesh and Sarla. But nobody ever spoke against Rao Vasu and his sons. Rao himself had comfortably turned deaf ear to the news in air. His aloofness only broken at times by the looming sense of distraction on Raju’s face or the spiteful words of Asha.
But, Rao Vasu knew that suspicion was a root to all evil. So he waited. Waited for the unholy claims to subjugate.
But today, Sarla was there, in his doorstep, with an infant.
He looked at the child. The infant with his tiny fingers held on to his mother. As if, scared of what lay ahead. He had a mop of curly hair, just like Raju did when he was born. Rao Vasu’s heart leaped. Could it be?
He turned to face the family. Neelabh was in his mother’s lap. Crying. As if he too knew of what had befallen his mother.
Asha cried as if in competition with her wailing child.
Hari’s face was contorted with anger as he looked at Sarla. Dimple had already started hurling abuses at the woman standing at the door.
It was then when Rajesh entered gallantly. He accepted his mistakes and took the child in his hands. Asha and other family members could no longer even look at him, so they went inside, as Rajesh stood with the child in his arms, head down, tears freely escaping from his eyes.
Rao Vasu stood there. Astonished. Angered. Saddened.
But his paternal instincts couldn’t let him leave. He remembered the time when he had promised his dying wife that he would protect his sons even from the Gods if need be.
He couldn’t desert his son now. His Rajesh. Raju.
He looked at the infant.
“How much?” He looked at the woman and asked solemnly.
“My child’s not for sale.” She replied indignantly.
“What do you want then?”
“Name. I want him to be acknowledged as one amongst you. As an equal.”
“That would never happen. I can’t do this to my daughter-in-law.”
“Very well then. I am a dying soul. My ailing body would any day depart for the heavens. This child will then die on the streets. Your blood will go to the dogs.”
With this, she angrily grabbed the child from Rajesh’s hand. Rajesh wouldn’t let go. He cried uncontrollably as the child flung between the angry woman and the teary eyed Rajesh.
“STOP.” Rao Vasu couldn’t bear this. Sarla’s anger or his sons’ grief he couldn’t understand.
“We’ll keep the child.” He took a deep breath and sat down.
Sarla slowly walked towards him. Her anger seemed to evaporate as fresh tears welled her eyes. With some effort she placed the child on his lap. She looked at him, pleading, as if, begging to take care of the little child. She stared directly in his eyes, tears mixed with self pity. She touched his feet. He turned his face away. She finally got up.
She left without any more fuss.
Raju locked himself in his room for the entire day. Coward. The child lay in an old charpoi. Asha wouldn’t eat or talk to anyone.
A few days later Sarla died. Nobody knew she’d had a child. Family name was saved.
Life returned to normal. Or it seemed so.
While Neelabh was the shining star of everyone’s eye, Shalabh was the thorn. Even Rajesh avoided spending time with him. He could no longer afford to lose his wifes’ forgiveness. Forgiveness comes with a price. For Rajesh, Asha’s forgiveness meant that he could no longer love Shalabh the same way as he wanted to. The only thing that now made Asha happy was when Neelabh was lavished with love and Shalabh was shunned. Her anger turned into an insatiable thirst of sadistic pleasure derived out of treating Shalabh in the most menial way possible.
Hari and Dimple, viewed Shalabh with suspicion. He was still an outsider for them.
Rao Vasu didn’t feel like patting him the same way as he did to Neelabh, Ritul and Richa. An occasional nod of approval or a rare smile was the maximum Shalabh could extract out of him.
“What’s my fault?” Once, Shalabh asked in a rage of childish anger, to Rao.
“You’re not my grandson. Not the son of Asha. Your mother is Sarla. Your fathers who*e. You are not a part of this family.” Shouted Rao, unable to control himself.
Shalabh grew up overnight.
He didn’t blame anyone. Everyone had a reason to hate him. He didn’t think his father was a coward. The situation had compelled him to be so. And thus, began Shalabh’s life. An eventful affair marred with memories of his childhood and ghosts from his past.
Shalabh rarely spoke to anyone after that. He made few friends. His only solace was his books and his room.
Years have passed since Shalabh got to know the pathos surrounding his birth and very existence.
Neelabh, Ritul and Richa have also shed the skin of childhood and put on the wiser garb of adulthood. The difference between them and Shalabh has become apparent to them and not even the the days of childhood acquaintance are enough to blur the stigma that Shalabh is to the family.
Rao Vasu knows that this isn’t the way a young life should be treated, but he feels shackled with his obligations towards his actual daughter-in-law and grandchild.
Shalabh longed to escape. To venture in some world where he’d be more welcomed. Where his existence was not a matter of shame or hatred.
He grew up and left for college in the nearby city. He rarely visited home then. Rao Vasu noticed that his departure left little signs on anyone in the family. Rajesh was till now, adept at masking his emotions.
Rao Vasu himself couldn’t grimace about missing his grandchild. His thoughts for Shalabh were more mechanical than the soft pain of a troubled grandparent.
When he thought about him he remembered his solemn face, his features which were distinctly different from the rest of the family, except the hair which were similar to his father.
His eyes – so strikingly similar were they with his mothers’ eyes! His mother whom Rao Vasu had only met once, but would never forget the eyes, which had pleaded to him. He didn’t seem to have a fiery exterior, like his mother had shown, thought Rao Vasu. But that’s because his mother claimed for something which she righteously thought was hers, on the other hand, her child justifies the secondary treatment meted out to him, he thinks he is responsible for it all. Should I talk to him? He is my grandchild after all?
“Dadaji. Is something bothering you?” Neelabh has just returned from college.
“No beta.” Rao Vasu pats him on his head and walks away. Neelabh smiles as he too walks towards his room, he doesn’t notice that Dadaji is wiping his eyes.
All the children are working now. Neelabh and Ritul are both married. They manage the family business. Richa is in college. She has grown up into a beautiful maiden.
Shalabh is married too. He seldom visits. He is working in some IT company. They say he’s doing well. Nobody in the family cares.
Rao Vasu is still alive. Old but alive. He sometimes flips through old family photos and sees a small boy hidden behind everyone. They say he’s doing well. He smiles to himself. He cares.
Rao Vasu is sitting on an old wicker chair. It is the same chair that once Raju had got for him.
He’s old. Very old.
He can’t talk fluently; his tongue keeps getting caught in the empty spaces where once his shiny teeth sat. He’s not sick or diseased but.
He sits as the sun bathes him with some of the finest morning rays. Enriching his old body. At some distance from his chair, Rushali plays with Vedant. Vedant is nearly three now. Healthier than most children his age. His movements are swift and give a passing glance to the shining future that awaits him. Shalabh sits in another corner. Smiling. Rao Vasu nods in approval.
This is not the Shalabh he had seen in his house. This Shalabh smiles, he no longer has the looks of a rueful wrongdoer. His eyes, Rao Vasu notices, are the same ones which his mother had.
Vedant looks like Neelabh in many ways. The same small ears and brown eyes. Rushali dotes on him. She left her job to look after him. As one day she confided in Rao Vasu, “I know Shalabh fears that Vedant’s childhood may be lost with a feeling of being unwanted. I just want Vedant to grow up with a feeling that he’s wanted. He’s cared for.”
He sure is cared for!
After Neelabh and his wife unexpectedly died in an unfortunate motor accident, Vedant mysteriously survived it. Ritul and his wife showed clear indications that they didn’t want an outsider amongst them. Richa was about to be married then. Dimple and Hari didn’t want the extra burden. Asha, maddened with grief of losing his beloved son and daughter-in-law, took her grandchild and for days sat in front of her dead husbands’ garland adoring photograph. Asking, as though, for an advice.
But what advice can a dead man give, who, in his lifetime, couldn’t even show his real emotions towards his own son?
Thought Rao Vasu.
That day he sat down, and with clenched fists and parched face dialed Shalabh’s number.
The sun still shone brightly. Rushali is still busy with Vedant. Shalabh is still smiling.
Rao Vasu smiled. A trail of tears trickled down his cheeks. Redemption. He thought. Where will I get it? In some other world maybe? The clank of cups brings him back to the present day.
Asha had brought him his tea.
She smiled. And stood next to him. Looking indulgently towards Vedant and Rushali. Does she also feel like him only? Does she love Shalabh now, with the same intensity with which she loathed his existence years ago? Or is she merely grateful for his act of kindness and humanity? Is he a son to her or a mere person who helped her in need? Does she also believe in redemption? Does she, like him, believe in some other world where she could return the childhood which had been snatched away from Shalabh for no fault of his?
He feels a sudden strain in his body. Like every breath he took sucked all the remaining energy in his old body.
Rao Vasu knows the end is here. He takes a long lasting look at Vedant and Rushali. And then Shalabh.
Shalabh – his unclaimed grandchild.
Eyes of that woman. Who had pleaded him.
Has he ever managed to honour her pleadings? He closed his eyes, there was no use keeping regrets, he told himself. “In some other world maybe.” He mumbled.
He asks Asha to bring him Vedant, Rushali and Shalabh. Asha, senses the urgency.
She calls the three.
Shalabh wants to call the doctor. But Rao Vasu holds him. “There’s no need.” He says.
He takes a good look at him again. The same eyes. Curly hair.
“Did Raju really dishonour the family then? How then is such a jewel born?” He thinks.
His breathing is heavier and strained now.
He closes his eyes. Feels Shalabh’s hand on his. He remembers the old family photos.
A small, timid boy in the shadows.
Uncared for. Unclaimed for. Unaccepted.
He weakly opens his eyes. Vedant, oblivious to the world, plays with his foster father’s curly hair. He looks happy. Blissfully happy.
Rao Vasu smiles. Remembers another infant. Why didn’t that child smile and giggle like Vedant?
He sighs, “Maybe in some other world….”
For a while he squeezed Shalabh’s hand. His grip gradually slackened as his limp body slumped on one side of the wicker chair.