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The Word

March 23, 2014

the wordThe young girl slipped from his hand and fell into the pit. As he reached to catch her, he saw her looking up at him accusingly, pain writ large on her face. Her face resembled that of her daughter and as she fell deeper it changed to that of his wife. He could no longer see her, but could only hear her scream. The screams grew lighter and lighter and the eerie echo sounded as if she was screaming ‘you let me down papa’.  He woke up with a start. He was sweating profusely. The bedspread was wet with his sweat. There was no sound in the room except the whirring of the ceiling fan and occasional rustle of the leaves from the tree outside the room. The window was open, the curtains drawn aside.  There was a moment of confusion. He didn’t know where he was. And then it all came back to him. He was in his daughter’s house. He was brought to his daughter’s house much against his wishes, he noted bitterly. He had asked the doctor to let him go back to his house or at the least let him stay in the hospital for a few more days, but the doctor would have none of it, even though he knew the state of relation between the father and the daughter.  

A week back, as he was watching TV, he felt a discomfort and a slight chest pain. He promptly called his neighbour and they had arranged for an ambulance to the hospital where his family physician practiced. They had probably informed his daughter as well. They had kept him in the ICCU for 3 days and then had shifted him to the general ward. Most of his friends had come to pay him a visit, one even from deep down south .He didn’t have a clue how they knew, but he was thankful for their visit.  They did their best to cheer him up, but more importantly their presence had helped him avoid the discomfiture of coming face to face with his daughter and son-in-law, till the last of his friends left and the doctor suggested that he could be discharged.

 He was a man of clean habits. He was regular with his exercise and led a methodical life with a clock like precision ingrained in him due to his military stint. He had been a colonel. He looked much younger than the 70 years that he was.  He got up early in the morning, walked for 10 Km rain or shine, half an hour of yoga, a couple of  hours with the newspaper and his black tea, a refreshing bath followed by a light breakfast. Then he would spend some time in correspondence; he was in touch with all his colleagues in the army. He cooked his lunch and dinner himself as his mood allowed him to, sometimes something simple and sometimes expansively. He was a good cook. Probably the only time the right side brain sprang up from the clutches of the left side that had made him orderly and very structured. He never slept in the afternoons preferring to read –Biographies and Astronomy, his favourite subjects. Both solve the mystery; he always loved to say, one of the human mind and the other the universe. In the evenings he went for a stroll, sat in the park for some time observing people. This, kind of became a pass time, to look at people and to try to guess the story of their life. He went back home just as it would get dark, fix himself a couple of drinks. He would sit on the terrace and gaze at the stars always wondering if there was life out there. He rarely over-indulged with his drinks. As far as he could remember there have been only three occasions  when he had drank himself senseless- the day his daughter was born, the day she got married and the day his wife died. He sat alone most days, but on some days, his neighbour would come along, even though he was a teetotaler. There would not be much conversation between them and both loved the silence. He would watch TV for the news and maybe sometimes some program on National Geography, before he went to sleep.

Lying on the bed, he looked around. He had been to his daughter’s house only once before. That was when his wife was alive. He had followed his wife and daughter as his daughter was showing her mother around the house. He didn’t want to be left alone with his son-in-law in the living room.  He had liked the room that he was in.  He remembered that there was a mango tree just outside the balcony. It was spring time and there was a strong scent of the mango bloom, then. The memories came unbidden and he didn’t like it one bit. He wanted to know what time it was. He looked around. There was a clock on the far side wall. It was dark and he couldn’t see clearly. There was the yellow light from the street light below, but it just fell short on the base of the clock. He looked out of the window. Was it dusk or dawn? He became desperate like a person suffering from dementia trying to recall a name. And then he saw a bright star in the horizon. Venus, he thought as a small chuckle escaped his lips. Venus rose about a couple of hours before day break during this time of the year. So it must be around 4 in the morning. The knowledge calmed him down. Lying on the bed he stared at the planet as if mesmerized by its brightness.

‘What star is that, papa?’ his daughter had asked. They were sitting in the courtyard after a sumptuous dinner; in their ancestral home. They had their dinner early, one of those things that his mother insisted He had always wondered how his appetite worked up whenever he visited his village. Must be the unpolluted air he thought He had a contented feeling and felt more close to his family- the 3 women in his life, his mother, his wife and his daughter. He looked up at the sky and directly over the horizon was a bright star. It appeared brighter in the pitch black sky. Another thing that amazed him was the number of stars that he could see when he came to his village that he could never hope to in the city. He was about to tell his daughter that he didn’t know the name of the star, when he heard his mother say Venus. Venus, she had told his daughter, is not a star, but a planet. He looked in awe and wonder at his mother, as she continued to tell his daughter more about the planet and the solar system . It was probably the time that the astronomy seed was planted in him.

Days rolled into years. His wife had a miscarriage. It had been an ectopic pregnancy, and the damage to the fallopian tube meant that she wouldn’t be able to conceive again. So they showered their daughter with all their love and everything else they had. Even she had been a late child. He was in his late thirties when she was born. She grew up into a beautiful young lady. She did extremely well in her academics. She was a talented painter as well. In short, life was going smoothly till she finished graduation. She wanted to do her Masters in a particular college, which meant that she had to move to a city far away from their home. All hell broke loose.  Move away and be on her own? Both the parents wouldn’t hear of it. There was all round tension for a couple of days. Finally he relented for he couldn’t bear to see his daughter so distraught, but not before contemplating that all three move. That meant that he will have to close down his business that he had started after his retirement, pooling his retirement benefits and a loan taken from the bank. It was not such a big business really, but there were 20 people working for him, some of them for some years now. He felt bad about that, but his daughter came first in his list of priorities. They also thought about his wife accompanying his daughter and that he would make visits every now and then. His daughter was against all of this. She knew pretty well that her father wouldn’t be able to survive a day without her mother. In their 29 years of marriage they hadn’t been away from each other for more than 2 days at a stretch and she knew the fuss that he threw around when it happened. She managed to convince them that distances very not so big with modern technology. They could chat on Skype every day she argued. Added to this, she put on a forlorn face knowing fully well that her father would yield to this emotional blackmail. And finally they did allow her to go.

They had a tough time adjusting to the void left by their daughter. More so, for his wife. So he brought home a Labrador pup. It was back to parenting again, but it did help them to get over the feeling of loneliness. They video chatted every evening. After some time it dwindled to 3 or 4 times a week and then became a weekly affair. She cited the increasing workload of studies and they didn’t have any reasons to doubt it either. The pup grew up to be a huge fellow. They could no longer let him sleep with them, but he invariably snuggled up near their feet. On a cold wintry night it was comforting to feel the warmth of their canine friend as he slept nose tucked into his hind legs. There was nothing like a dog to fill the emotional vacuum, he thought to himself. The frequency of their daughter’s call went down even lower. Exams around the corner she had said. In the 2 years that she was in college she came home only thrice and not for more than five days in a visit. She seemed restless and as if wanting to leave the very next day.  It was then that he had a teeny weenie doubt that their daughter was drawing away from them.

She graduated at the top of her class. She called to tell them that she would be home in another week’s time after winding up and spending some time with her friends. Be prepared for a surprise, she had told them, as an afterthought. She came home. With a tall handsome man. She introduced him as a research scholar from her university, who wanted to visit their town and spend a couple of days visiting nearby places of archaeological importance. He turned to look at his wife, but she quickly turned away, not wanting to meet his gaze. Was she in this too? a thought flashed through his mind . She would never hide anything from him. He was sure of that. He could see that she was also totally bewildered. Their daughter seemed not to notice their discomfiture. So they arranged for him to stay in the upstairs bedroom.

He was a little guarded with his daughter’s friend. Was it jealousy? He was not sure. The next day, at the breakfast table he was a little reserved towards their guest, who was enjoying the breakfast and being very appreciative of the food. His wife on the other hand had already warmed up to him. She always liked people who loved her cooking. His daughter and her friend left, right after breakfast. She had asked them not to wait for them for lunch and that they might return late. His wife had packed some eats and a flask of coffee for them. He had already gone to bed by the time they returned. He could hear both his daughter and wife laughing at something that their new friend was saying. He had a half a mind to go and meet them and then decided against it. He turned away from them. He will ask his wife what it was all about when she comes to bed, he thought. It turned out that he didn’t know when his wife came to sleep. By the time he woke up the next day, his daughter and her friend had already left for their sortie. He was grumpy while he had his tea and his wife knew too well to let him be. He noticed that his wife was happy and full of energy. He could make out that she very badly wanted to tell him something, but was deciding against it, by her twirling of a lock of her hair. It is a wonder how one gets to know their partner’s mood without any words being spoken out  Have to ask her when she had gone to sleep the previous day, he thought to himself. He finished his tea and the newspaper, got ready, had a quiet breakfast and with a gruff ‘I will be late’ left for work. His wife had to run behind him to give him his lunch. She knew that he will be normal by evening, she smiled to herself.

When he returned home, his daughter’s friend had left. He was peeved at the way he had behaved with their guest. His daughter came up to him and hugged him. She seemed genuinely happy. How was college, he asked her. A real piece of serious conversation, he thought wryly, from the time she had come home. It was great she said and that she was already missing her friends. She hung around for a while and then she said that she was feeling tired and went to bed. He felt that she too wanted to say something and was hesitating to say it. He looked at his wife enquiring and it turned out that she didn’t have a clue as well.

It was at the breakfast table, the next day that she said that she was in love with her friend who had come with her and that she wanted to marry him. He didn’t utter a word but he was seething with anger. Deep inside he was expecting something like this but when it came out in the open he was feeling a bit strange. A bit detached in fact. It was kind of a surreal feeling, as if he was a spectator of a unknown play. He never expected that his daughter was capable of doing anything like this. Like most parents, he assumed that their child could not have a mind of her own. He in fact wanted her to marry his colleague’s son. A handsome bloke, well behaved and above all a Captain in the army. Though he and his friend had been talking about this, nothing was firmed up. Yet he felt angry at having to lose face with his friend. Probably that was what made him to push back his chair and start menacingly towards his daughter, hands stretched as if to strike her down and shouting ‘I wouldn’t let you marry any Tom, Dick or Harry and especially someone who believes in a different God. He became aware of the shocked expressions on the faces of his daughter and his wife. He checked himself in the last minute and stormed out of the house, vaguely being aware of his daughter sobbing and his wife trying to console her.

He wandered aimlessly, a sense of remorse overwhelming him. But, how she dare do this to me, he thought to himself. The anger, in a way, was a justification for the crass behaviour with his daughter. Blame her for your actions. How very convenient. When he returned the house was eerily calm .Did he feel it that way, he couldn’t say for sure. His wife was in the kitchen, probably cooking lunch. Their dog, lying under the dining table, lifted its head and then went back to dozing as if it wanted to avoid his gaze. He headed towards the kitchen, then changed his mind, turned back and went to his room. After some time his wife came in to say that lunch was ready. He didn’t move from his seat, where he sat staring at the wall. He had to be coaxed to the dining table. His daughter was not there. He did not bother to ask where she was.

And so it went on. For a week. And then a month. Father and daughter didn’t speak to each other. He was adamant. So was she. The genes were in play. It was left to his wife to bring about a balance and to bear the brunt of the passive war. His wife was continuously urging him to reconsider his decision. It was after all their daughter, she had said and that her happiness was paramount. He clung on to saying that he didn’t want to marry her daughter to somebody who was from a different religion. What if he was a non believer, would he have given his consent then, his wife had argued. Finally he gave in. He could not bear to see his wife’s suffering. She deserved a better husband and a better daughter, he thought bitterly. But he made it adequately clear that he would be just a spectator at the wedding and would have absolutely nothing to do with the ceremony. His daughter and her friend decided to have a simple wedding. He did not bother to invite his friends or his relatives. His daughter had invited her friends from college. So it was. A simple affair.  He was true to his words and was aloof during the wedding. Even the photographs clearly showing his isolation and his wife’s helplessness as she was torn between their daughter’s happiness and her husband’s moroseness.

After the ceremony, he watched on as his wife hugged her daughter, tears in both their eyes, without any emotion. He carefully avoided his daughter’s eyes as she got into the car to be driven off to her new home.

Both of them were silent on their way home. And when they reached home, his wife went into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. Suddenly he got a scare that his wife might do something foolish. He knocked on the door. There was no response. He called out her name. And still there was no response. He could feel his stomach curl, caused by fear and partly by anger. He looked at his watch and then raised his hand to knock on the door. Before he could knock, the door opened and his wife came out, her eyes puffed up by her crying. She quickly changed her dress and went into the kitchen. He wanted to go behind her, turn her around and ask her what it was all about. Damnit, he thought, he had not done anything wrong. He slammed the door shut and lay down on the bed. She will come and apologize. He was sure of that. She didn’t. He did not know when he fell asleep. When he woke up, he felt severely disoriented and very hungry. It was nine. He could hear sounds of the late night traffic, wafting through the window. The blinking neon light of an advertisement was throwing blue and red light alternately. Somehow this depressed him immensely. He never slept in the afternoons. And the hunger. It was gnawing his stomach away. He got up and went into the bathroom. He took a cold shower. This somehow increased his hunger. He called out out to his wife, No response.

He came out of his room. On the dining table he could see food being set and a lone plate kept upside down. There was no sign of his wife. The house was in darkness except for the dim light in the living room. He went up to the terrace and there she was standing and looking up at the sky. He called out her name. She turned and told him that food was on the table. She turned back to looking at the stars. He went up to her, turned her to face him and asked her why she was behaving like this. Like what, she asked back. He didn’t have an answer. It was then he realized that he had gone too far for redemption. He had pushed her hard and now he was no longer in her horizon. He ended without eating, preferring to drink himself  back to sleep.

She had changed completely. She never spoke on her own and spoke only when spoken to, replied mostly in monosyllables. He was lost without her. He would be lying if he said that he didn’t miss his daughter. He tried to bring her back to her spontaneous person that she used to be. He talked to her, most times without getting any response. He would be patient he thought to himself. It was after all his making. He knew that his wife and daughter spoke to each other regularly. Somehow he found it hard to ask any details about his daughter and her husband. His wife wasn’t forthcoming about their conversations either.

Five months had passed. The hide and seek between them was not going anywhere. She was not ready to forgive him for his childish behaviour. He was willing to bend backwards to be normal with his wife again. Made him realize how much he had taken her granted for. One day, he told her that they can maybe visit her daughter, the following day. It is her birthday you see, he had added as an after thought. She looked up from the book she was reading for a moment and then went back to her reading. He had thought that his wife would jump for joy and would hug him and maybe even plant a peck on his cheek.  He clearly had not expected this. So he said we will leave at 6 tomorrow and left in a hurry as if he was scared that his wife will say that she was not coming.

She was ready by 6. It was a 3 hour drive and with directions from their daughter on the speaker phone they reached her house. Obviously his wife had informed about their visit the previous night itself.  There was awkwardness in meeting them. His son-in-law invited him into the house. His daughter just smiled at him and he forced a smile back. Mother and daughter hugged each other and went through bouts of crying and some delirious laughing. He felt like a foreigner in the midst of some tribal ritual and not knowing what to do. He failed to make some small talk with his son-in-law. There was an embarrassing silence as both of them didn’t know what to do. As his son-in-law got up to answer a telephone call, he quickly got up to join his wife and daughter to look around the house.

He was thankful for his wife when his wife said that they better get going. And when their daughter insisted them to stay back for lunch, she had said they will come another day and maybe stay with them for a few days. She said that, looking at him and he had just turned his glance elsewhere. He knew pretty well that his wife had passed the offer to stay back for lunch for his sake. To save him the blushes. On the way back, his wife was seemingly happy and was humming her favourite song. Still no meaningful conversation between them. He had waited thus far. He can wait some more. They had lunch at a restaurant on the way.

The next day when he woke up, he noticed that his wife was still asleep. A rarity. Normally by this time she would be sitting on the verandah with her morning tea.. He was an early riser, but normally she would have been already up and about by the time he got up. Must be the travel had tired her, he thought as he readied himself for his morning walk. He went into the kitchen and made tea for both of them. He took her tea to their bedroom and shook her. He expected her to jump up, agitated that she had overslept. But he found that she was dead.

Their daughter and her husband had come. She was inconsolable. She hugged him, but he was withdrawn. He was dazed and didn’t know what to do. Deep inside he felt that it was she, who was cause of his wife’s death. Their neighbour had taken charge and arranged for the funeral. He didn’t have a faintest idea of what had happened at the funeral and beyond.  That night he drank like it was nobody’s business. When he woke up the next day, it was already 11. Her daughter was still in the house. She gave him tea, but he refused. Not because she had had made it but because of the severe hangover. His head was splitting and was terribly disoriented. He called out his wife’s name and then realized that she will never answer his call again. His daughter stood by the doorway tears in her eyes not knowing what to do. She walked up to him and told him that her husband would come in the evening to pick them up and that he should come and stay with them. His head felt like it was being crushed between a vice. He shouted at her to leave him alone. He skipped lunch much against the entreaties of his daughter to have something. In the evening when his son-in-law came, his daughter once again urged him to go with them. ‘Leave me alone’, ‘I can take care of myself, you go lead your beautiful life’, he had said to his daughter. She too had had a difficult day. Probably that was what made her to shout, ‘One day you will need somebody, and then, only I, will be there for you’. Regretting, the moment that she had started to say it. A regret that she knew that can never be undone. He was cool and unfazed when he replied, ‘ I will give you my word that the day that happens would be the last day of my life’. And he had continued, ‘would you be kind enough to close the door on your way out? , summarily dismissing them and closing the bedroom door behind him. He did not know when they had left. They were not around when he came out of the room after a couple of hours.

And that was how he was, alone, taking care of himself, as he had promised his daughter. Getting into routine, which would dull his pain. His daughter had tried to call him a few times, but he never responded. In time he knew that she had delivered a baby and had given the boy his name, all from his neighbour, And now this.

As he lay on bed looking at the sparkling Venus, he felt that he had been a jerk. The biggest of them in fact. He had lost his wife and then his daughter to his stupidity and stubbornness. And what had she done?  Married somebody she liked rather than somebody he liked?  She is well off and happy now. Isn’t she? He looked out as the sky was getting ready for the day. He thought of seeing his grandson for the first time, of all the stories that he had to tell him. He had to apologize to his daughter and most of all to his son-in-law, who had behaved with such maturity in spite of all the insults that that he had heaped him with. He was impatient for day break. There were a lot of things he had to do. Or rather undo.

When she came up to look up on her father, she found him dead. There was a smile on his face. It is still not day she thought incongruously.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bragadeesh Prasanna permalink
    March 26, 2014 23:48

    Loved it. Mixed feelings.. A very satisfying read after a very long time. Thank you for this.

    • April 20, 2014 18:08

      Thank you Bragadeesh. Sorry for the delayed acknowledgement. 🙂

  2. April 19, 2014 20:28

    Very moving read, as I have already told you.
    And the irony is that this sort of story plays out ever too often; and worse yet, words forgiveness and acceptance are held back, all because of the omnipotent ego.

    Thank you. You did point out a typo, I just couldn’t locate it. Can you point it out for me again?

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