Published in the February 2013 issue of Good Times of the North-East
As if raising a four-year-old kid alone was not enough, little Nikki had begun asking questions to her dad for which he had no answers.
“Daddy, everyone in school has two parents, why do I have only one?”
As a response, Ravi would pass the bowl of cereals, on the wooden dining table that doubles as a table for ironing the clothes of his customers, to his daughter and snap.
“Eat your breakfast”.
The laundryman would be furious at his daughter for being so questioning, and partly because he could not answer it, or rather because he had been asking the same questions to himself for three years.
After he would drop her off at school, Ravi would realize that none of this was the little girl’s fault and his anger would change into compunction and sometimes, self-pity.
While his daughter would be in the school, pestered by the fact that her father forgot to pack her lunch box again, Ravi would visit every household of the community collecting clothes to be washed. He would wash and hang the clothes out in his backyard before leaving to bring his daughter back from school. After serving a meal of rice and potatoes and putting his child to sleep, he would go to the nearby filling station at Malviya Nagar and work there till 8:00pm. He would then come back home in a drunken state only to find Nikki crying and throwing up all over the place being scared by something or the other every day. He would then sober up, feed her and put her to sleep and end his household chores by ironing the laundry and cleaning the utensils. Sometimes, Shanti, the friendly neighbour, and her husband and Ravi’s friend, Kishore would come to lull the child while Ravi was away at work. But they stopped coming from a few months when Shanti herself became a mother of two. So Nikki was left all alone for hours, to be on her own, just like she was, three years ago.
Nikki was barely a year old when the unfortunate happened, her mother left her, never to be seen again. It was when Ravi came home from the petrol station that he found the house dark and empty and Nikki was sound asleep on her bed. All that Nikki’s mother, Smriti, left for her husband was the word “Sorry” written on a piece of paper and kept neatly near the sleeping baby, beneath a bottle of milk. The wet paper could tell Ravi that maybe Smriti had no choice but to leave, although he could not tell why, he could not tell where.
As months passed by and there was no news of Smriti, Ravi gave up searching for her presuming that the paper was wet not because of her tears, but because of the warm bottle of milk kept on it. As Smriti never returned, everyone in the neighbourhood including Kishore named her a whore. There was no reason why Ravi would not believe their words, as it had happened before in the neighbourhood that women have left their husbands and kids, to live the rest of their lives as a kept woman to a wealthy master.
Ravi had never expected this from his wife as theirs was a love marriage, unlike others. He had left drinking for her and she had left her village, Badarpur, for him. But, as everyone else quoted, bringing a village girl to the big city of New Delhi was the mistake Ravi committed and so she became lecherous awed by the city’s rich lot. When Smriti was gone for a year, Ravi began believing their opinions to be true day-after-day. A rumor also spread like fire that Smriti was seen with another man in a crowded Lajpat Nagar market. Ravi did not know how much truth the rumor held, but he accepted the fact that Smriti would never come back. He began boozing again, but only during the late hours. He began working as a laundryman in the morning hours so that money would not fall short to raise his child alone, since Smriti’s monthly payment from the houses she had worked for as a maid, stopped inflowing. Sometimes he would wake up at midnight to find himself trying to run away from the shackles of responsibilities of being a father. He would think that it’s because of Nikki that his family was broken now and he would think of her as a jinx. While at other times he would just look at his sleeping child for hours and hours, calling her a little angel now and then. He would say that Nikki will never leave him alone, unlike Smriti.
Nikki was his reason to live, his treasure, and he was hers. As another year went by without any news from Smriti, Ravi had begun to forget about her and consider his as a family of two. He had become quite engrossed with his works and his family and thoughts of Smriti had stopped bothering him. Times were smooth, until Nikki started making friends in her school and brought home nothing but questions about her mother. Nikki did not know who her mother was, nor did she know if her mother was alive. All that she knew was that her Daddy would not say anything about his wife. Eventually she stopped asking questions, so did the neighbours. The rumors stopped too and no one saw or heard of her again.
Smriti, unlike her name, became a forgotten past.
Sipping the cup of tea I was offered, I was apprehensive about what news awaited me. As I coughed out another drop of blood, doctor Verma addressed me, “Smriti, where is your husband?”
“He could not come due to his work.’’ I lied.
“I take it that you haven’t yet told him about your illness?”
I hung my head in shame in response to that.
It was then that the doctor edified me about my illness- Cancer, it is.
“Of the lungs”, he added empathetically, “your prolonged exposure to tobacco leaf dusts and asbestos in the tobacco factory, your father worked in, might have resulted in your disease.”
I knew what was next; before he could say more, I asked ‘how many more years do I get to live?”
“I am afraid, not even one.”
Appalled, I broke into tears and was about to run away, but before I could, the doctor added, “listen Smriti, your disease has reached stage 3B, now there is little that we can do, you need to undergo some treatments to increase your life-expectancy.’’
This time, I did run away, I did not wait to hear what’s next. I knew that to afford to live some more years I will need money, the one thing we lack.
Bereaved, I walked back home as if in a trance, to attend to the one-year old baby I had left asleep in the morning.
Nikki was still sound asleep while I wept, lying next to her.
I cogitated all day. I knew not how to gather the money for the treatments. I knew not whether it was fair to waste so much money on myself, just to live a few more years with my family, while my death was certain. If I told Ravi, he would be hurt and he would work harder to garner the amount of money. But it did not seem to me that I was worth the pain he would be prepared to take for me. Ravi was already worried about Nikki’s school fees and the endurance of a family of three in our combined salary; I could not burden him with my responsibility. I cogitated all day but could think of no solution than one.
It was around 8pm that I could put crying Nikki to sleep. I fought back my tears and attempted to write Ravi a letter before leaving him and my child forever. I picked up a pen, tore a piece of paper from the calendar and sat down to write. But all I could write was the word “Sorry” before I broke down into tears again.
Maybe it was the last time I would cry in this house, our house. Or maybe it was the last time I would shed a tear, ever.
That night, for the first time, I stopped thinking, I closed the doors to my heart, I stopped crying, and no sense of shame could make me rethink my decision. I walked out of the house I had once called ‘mine’. I watched Ravi walk home, as I hid behind a tree to see him for the last time. As a tear rolled down my cheek, I dissented to all pleas, of returning home, made by my heart. I had my mind made up.
That night, I walked; I knew not for how long, I knew not to where, all I knew was that I walked and walked.
It seems like it’s been more than a day or two that I have been walking. Maybe I have fainted at places, maybe it’s been just an hour, I do not remember, I cannot recall. All I see now is yards and yards of blue water in front of me. As I step into the river, I can feel its lucidity. The Yamuna, that I once called ‘dirty’, seems to be so pure and clear today. I step in further, farther than I had ever been. I breathe in the river, more and more. As I let the sacred water imbue me, I can feel it pardon my mortal sin, the sin that I commit today. Memories, memories of yesterday reflect in front of my eyes. A clear view, a view of blue, appears in front of me. I blend with the Yamuna. I reconcile my hereafter. And I, unlike my name, seek the great oblivion.