(It’s been ages since I posted a story, so here’s one. It’s a bit long, so I am posting it in two parts. You can read the second part here.
It’s one of my personal favourites. This time, I tried a different story format. Does it work? Do let me know what you think! Enjoy!)
“Guru, have you booked the cab?”
Her voice, raspy and brittle, floated out from our bedroom. I walked in and found her hunched over her laptop again.
She stared at the email message on her computer, her mind racing so fast that the words blurred together and no longer made any sense. Just three lines, but enough to make her life–the life she’d worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build–begin to crumble around her.
“She is no more, Guru!” She looked up and unveiled her tear-stained cheeks. No, she wasn’t crying loudly and thumping her chest, but those tears were real. Her eyes were red and her ears had turned bright pink. She tried to speak but her emotions choked her. All I could do was silently hug her.
As we locked ourselves on each other’s neck, Sucheta found her voice again.
“I was so hopeful, Guru.” Her sentence drowned in her larynx at ‘hopeful.’
“Poor Paro. She didn’t deserve this! She deserved a normal proper life like any other child!”
A car honk hoisted us out of our broken conversation. We put our luggage – just a rucksack each – in the boot space and sat in the traffic-worn car. Just as we were about to start, Sucheta suddenly jumped out of the car and ran back inside. A few minutes later, she emerged from the front door, cradling a small package in her hands.
“A little something for Paro.” She replied and hastily thrust it into her wallet and pushed it and her soaked handkerchief into her jeans pocket.
“Where to Sir?”
“You may look around, Mr and Mrs Swaroop. Once you are able to decide, we can begin the formalities.” The old matronly lady smiled.
A thin pale woman, possibly the janitor, led us into the hollow building, still surprisingly surviving thanks to the contributions made by fellow Indians with meagre help from the government.
We walked out into an open courtyard where all the children were standing in five neat rows, hands joint in prayer.
“Asato Ma Sad Gamaya, Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya, Mrityor Ma Amritam Gamaya”
(Lead us from ignorance to truth, Lead us from darkness to light, Lead us from death to deathlessness.)
The unanimous call to the almighty brought alive by these innocent voices, reinforced by the ancient walls of the dim Prayer Hall, sent a chill down our spine. We were resolute that we shall be God’s answer to at least one of these children and give them a life worth living.
Once the morning prayer was done, all of them scattered in different directions, echeloning together near the exits again and left with their caretakers. We slowly continued walking towards one of the exits and arrived at the playground.
Young children, barely four to five-years-old played on the swings merrily, blissfully oblivious to the fact there will be no one to hold them if they fall – not just on this wheezing swing, but even the swing of reality, called the future.
The janitor walked us around the other buildings as we peeped into the classrooms. The girls sat cross-legged on the floor, yellowed tattered books open on their little laps. They were reading something aloud slowly yet powerfully.
“Thirukkural.” The teacher came out and greeted us. As we entered the class, all the girls stood up respectfully. It was only then that the disparity in their ages was visible. Some girls with long plaited hair, acne-scarred skin and small hints of puberty, looked at us vacantly, the fire in their eyes long doused. The younger ones, on the contrary, smiled their best, wide eyes and rosy cheeks.
We asked them to sit down and ourselves sat in a corner to silently observe them recite the ancient scholar’s couplets of wisdom. We closed our eyes and let those powerful sermons drown in our souls and let it be our harbinger of peace. Though Sucheta knew Tamil, I did not. Yet, the tone and enunciation of the recital had a certain allure that did not escape me.
We got up to leave when the teacher gently stopped us.
“Do you have anything to tell them?”
I looked around and saw that they had all stood up. Their eyes bore into mine, a question bordering on finality and beginnings, of a life outside these dull precincts, of elusive times buoyant and lively.
Sucheta understood my hesitation and decided to speak.
“I see all of you have stood up respectfully for us. Thank you.” She looked around, her retinas scanning the paltry dimensions of the classroom, “Yet, one of you did not.”
The girls drew in their breath and surveyed their environment for the offending classmate. The teacher flushed in controlled anger and stomped around. Within no time, a voice, succulent as honey yet fierce as the roar of a lioness, streamed from the grimiest corner of the room.
“Yes, ma’am. It was me. And I’m not sorry.”
A small girl of about seven walked towards us. She clutched a page of her notebook in her hands and seethed at us angrily.
The teacher was about to lash her with her wooden scale when Sucheta stopped her. She kneeled down to her and asked, “Why, child?”
“So many of you come here. We all stand up deferentially, straighten our kurtas, slick back loose strands of hair and await your entrance hopefully. Each time one of you leave, you carry with you a chunk of our hope, our dreams of a parallel life we may possibly never live. We are tired, ma’am. We want some self-respect. Why should we stand up for someone who has never done and will never do something for us?”
“How dare you! Wait till …” I cut the teacher off and kneeled down next to Sucheta and saw her smiling through tears.
“We have to be brave and stand for ourselves. Isn’t that what Thiruvalluvar tells us?” She asked my wife softly and showed her the sheet of paper.
My wife read the scrawny writing and hugged her.
“Child, what is your name?”
“Parijatham. But people call me Paro.”
“I will never forget the first lines she ever told us,” Sucheta spoke, staring at the metallic jigsaw of cars and bikes outside. The Chennai traffic was slowing us down and helped us continue through our hollow talk.
“How much longer?” I asked the driver.
“Can’t say, sir. May take at least one more hour.”
I sighed and leaned back and watched impassively as the traffic began to clear. We started to speed up when I saw a balloon seller.
After nine whole months of cutting through red tape, we were finally able to unwrap our gift – Paro. She brought with her a frayed bag, a rag doll and her books. We learnt early on that books were Paro’s life. She even told us proudly that she had begun reading English and showed us a faded picture book, the red of the apple under ‘A’ almost invisible.
As we drove home, Sucheta asked her what she wanted first.
“I want a balloon.” She stated without hesitation.
So many things I was prepared to give her – books, gadgets, fashionable outfits, diamonds – anything my bank balance could withstand, and here she was asking for an inflated piece of rubber. In our rushed lives, we hardly ever realise that sometimes, the greatest pleasures are the cheapest.
“Please, Amma, Appa. I have only seen balloons on Cartoon Network. Can I get one?”
I nodded my head gleefully and bought the entire bunch from a frazzled young man, who was only too happy to get rid of his weightless burden and return home with solid money.
To say Paro was thrilled is an understatement. Even after we went home and showed her new spacious room, a cupboard filled with books, a well-stocked larder and fridge and a herd of plush toys, she continued to hold onto the balloon tightly. Dinner was also honoured by the company of Mr Balloon.
The following week, our bonding with Paro improved manifold. Each day, we took her out to a different place – the zoo, the shopping mall, the amusement park, the Chinese restaurant and to the museum. Her childish delight and teeth-baring smile were more than we could ever ask for. At the end of the day, she would become very tired and sleep off on Sucheta’s shoulder.
She was especially attached to my wife, following her everywhere, clutching Sucheta’s dupatta in one hand and a balloon in the other. I got a little jealous, but I reasoned she may be closer to her because of her proficiency in Tamil. They read together, wrote together, walked together and sang together. No one would ever believe that our daughter had been with us for hardly a month. Such was the mutual affection.
For us, it didn’t matter that we couldn’t have a child who bore the same genes as us. Sucheta’s pelvic inflammatory disease had indeed shocked us beyond measure. The fact that she will never give birth to our child shattered us, but all that was forgotten with Paro bringing unparalleled happiness to us.
One Sunday early morning, the repeated toneless drone of our doorbell woke us up from slumber. Paro was still asleep, one arm casually draped over Sucheta’s hips. She gently laid her hand away and got up to receive the impatient caller. After about ten minutes when she didn’t return, I went down to see what was happening.
A thin lady, vaguely familiar, was talking with my wife. A huge burn scar traced her forehead just below her hairline. Tiny keloids dotted the right side of her face. This lady was almost begging my wife and was almost in tears. Sucheta stood bewildered, not knowing what to do.
“What has happened?” I enquired.
She shut the door lightly and pulled me aside.
“She wants to work as our house-help desperately. She is prepared to do all that Mayamma does just for eight-hundred rupees! That’s less than half of what we pay Mayamma now!” She whispered.
“Okay! Good for us! Let’s hire her!” I muttered matter-of-factly.
“Don’t you think it is all very suspicious?” Her eyes became mere slits and her nose scrunched up. She always did that when she was thinking too hard.
“Well, seems about right. Let’s talk to her.”
While we were still interviewing her, it suddenly hit me why she seemed familiar.
“You are the janitor at The Home, aren’t you?” I exclaimed.
The lady stood stunned with her jaw hanging in the air.
“But Sir, how did you know? How did you guess?” She stammered. I did not reply.
After a tense pause, she continued slowly, “Well, since my cover’s blown, I may as well tell you the truth now. The truth hurts, but it is liberating. And I’m really sorry for this Akka, but Paro, God’s gift to us all, is actually my daughter. I want to be with her. Please.”
(Read Part II here! What do you think of the story so far?)