A heart wrenching short story about a woman who loses all that she loves in life, but life changes in unexpected ways. This was my submission for Times of India 'Write India' contest
The photograph fell to the floor, the glass shattered to bits. And just like that the reverie was broken. She closed the folder she had been trying to focus on with a bang and turned to inspect the damage.Her slipper crunched on the broken shards as she bent to pick up the remains of the frame; which until a few seconds ago held an old black and white photograph of a much younger Pallavi smiling in abandon as a handsome olive skinned man lifted her in his arms. She did not have the wrinkles on her forehead and that haunted look in her eyes then. She exhaled as she tried not to dwell on the past. Crumpling the photograph into her fist she glanced at the culprit.
A four year old boy stood two feet from her with a guilty look in his eyes.
“Basanti! Take baba to his room.”She hailed the child’s 45 year old nanny who had been her loyal help for as long as she could remember.
“Noooooooooooo! I want to play,” the kid wailed.
“Basanti!” Pallavi barked. The maid rushed to grab the mutinous child before he could do any more damage to the expensively laid out den of Vasundhara Niwas."I want to play. Ronnie no sleepy now." The kid ducked his nanny’s outstretched arms to plead his case before an unrelenting judge.
Pallavi gave up on the report she was trying to read.She had a long day and wasn't in the mood for his tantrums. Her eyes shining with controlled anger in the glow of the study lamp, she looked quite formidable as she stared at him.
Sensing her grim mood, Basanti grabbed Ronnie and turned to leave the room. But he broke free again and ran to clutch Pallavi’s feet, “Mama I want to play!”
This was the last straw. Pallavi looked down at the brown eyed boy, who unknowingly had become her biggest nemesis, with eyes full of hatred. “I am not your mama. Do you understand? I will never be your mama you ungrateful child. I should have never brought you here. I hate you and I hate your mother”, and with those cruel words she pushed the child away and ran to her room holding back sobs that threatened to wreck her countenance.
“Baba, I told you not to disturb madam. Come I will take you to bed…”Basanti’s voice faded into the night as she tried to calm the child who had now broken into hiccupped tears.
Back in her room Pallavi collapsed in her bed and let the tears flow freely. She retrieved the crumpled photograph from her fist and the dam of memories she tried so hard to keep at bay took over her like a blanket.
Six years ago.
Mr. and Mrs. Nanda believed that their life was perfect. They were madly in love. Their garment business was doing great. They travelled the world, went on adventures and lived life like there was no tomorrow. Legendary parties were hosted almost every fortnight in the living room of Vasundhara Niwas. They had taken great pride in planting every Ashoka tree that lined the driveway to their beloved home themselves. The hidden garden behind the house was their escape from the jungle of concrete and steel that had overcome the city and the couple spent many eventful evenings tending to its various trees. Friends and relatives had time and again enquired about kids but they said they were too young and too busy to raise a child. The correct time would come.
But as they say, all good things come to an end. The frequent travelling and late nights started taking a toll on Pallavi's health. After three months without a period she could no longer ignore a visit to a doctor. She suspected she might be pregnant. But doctor had worse news for her.
“Mrs. Nanda, I am sorry to inform you but your test results came by. You have PCOS and hypothyroid. Although not impossible but it will be quite difficult for you to conceive. I will start the medication right away. Please avoid any form of stress.” The good doctor gave a pointed look to her husband at the last statement.
Jeet Nanda patted his wife's shoulder gently as they left the clinic. "It's not the end of the world Pavi", he whispered, "We will get a second opinion. You don't worry. You just take the medicines on time.We'll soon have a cute little kid playing in our garden. I promise." But the words offered very little comfort to her in the face of her sorrow.
True to his word, Jeet took her to one doctor after another and they tried every single treatment available but to no avail. Everywhere she went and every child she saw made her weep. It seemed to her that the cruel world was trying to churn a knife through her heart.The more stressed she became, the more the disease got stronger. She stopped going to work and rarely went out on weekends. Most of her time was spent in the garden tending to the myriad trees and flowers they had planted over the years.
She distanced herself from her friends and relatives because she only had so many ways to tell them that all their attempts to have a child were failing. Depression took hold of her and the world became obscured with a dark cloud of hopelessness. She made a wall around her heart which not even her husband could penetrate. He had tried to be supportive and understanding. But she saw only judgment in the eyes which were filled with but love.
Pallavi was very close to her sister Shreya who was a frequent visitor at their home.She too tried but in vain to make her see reason.
"You are being unreasonable Pavi. Why do you take stress? You are so lucky you have such a loving and supportive husband. Enjoy life. So what if you don't have a child?"
"You don't understand."
"What will I not understand? He loves you, but you won't even look at him. He is suffering too you know."
"I cannot give him a child. He must hate me. I hate myself. Why is this happening to me?" and she burst into tears.
Her husband tried to make her understand that he loved her no matter what but there is only so much a man can do. With each passing day the distance between them seemed to grow.
“Jeet, where are you?”
“Pavi, I am stuck in a meeting. I will be late. Please have dinner without me.”
“Pallavi, I am going to be away for a week. You take care okay? We’ll go on that vacation you wanted once I am back.”
And so it continued until one day.
“I am calling from Nehru Nagar police station. Madam I have some bad news. Your husband has been in an accident. Can you please come down to Mt. Mary Hospital?”
Pallavi had always hated hospitals. But this time she did not notice the sterile environment of the establishment, she did not cringe at the smell of disinfectant mixed with something more potent, she did not even hear the howls of pain or the tears of the relatives sitting in the waiting room. Her heart was thudding in her ears. Her only concern was Jeet.
A policeman met her in the lobby and briefed her about the situation in a business like voice. A drunk driver had missed the red light and slammed into her husband’s car. Jeet Nanda had died instantly. Shreya had died on the way to the hospital. They were investigating further to establish the identity of the driver….
"Jeet is dead?" she uttered in a horrorstruck voice.
"Yes", he answered gravely.
"And Shreya? Shreya was in the car with Jeet?"
"Yes Madam. Shreya Sahay and her 10 month old son Raunak were also in the car. I take it you are related?"
"Yes. She is my sister. Son?"
"Yes Madam. He survived the accident. The nurse will be bringing him in now. You will be given temporary custody of course."
But Pallavi's head was already spinning. Jeet was dead. Her sister was dead. Her sister had a son. Jeet was dead. Jeet was dead. Dead! Dead! Dead! Her mind kept repeating it over and over again as she blacked out.
Pallavi felt a warm hand checking her pulse as she opened her eyes in the hospital room. She glanced at a middle-aged nurse tending to her. She recognized the familiar face of Basanti who stood across her bed with concern etched all over her face. It took a moment for her to register the child bundled up in her arms.
The instant he smiled at her with those warm brown eyes and a round nose not much unlike her own she knew. There was no question at all that they were related. This boy was her nephew? Her step-son? Oh my God! This boy was the lovechild of Jeet and Shreya!
"Madam", Basanti's voice echoed in the room as Pallavi lost consciousness again.
It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever.
She had always known this day would come. The day she had brought him home from the hospital she had it all planned out. One day he would be old enough to be put in a hostel and would be out of her life for good. It was temporary. Even though it tore her heart to pieces every single day she had carried on. She was now an expert in creating a wall around her heart.
But kids! They have a way to enter even the darkest and coldest of hearts. When did she fall in love with him? She could not tell. Maybe it was the time when she first held him in her arms and he had looked at her with those brown eyes like she meant the world to him, or maybe when his face lit up with an angelic smile every time she entered the room. She had tried to keep her distance, she really had. But life never follows your plans. A time came when Basanti had slept through the night and it was Pallavi who had stayed awake to feed him and sooth him with lullabies. He had never been deprived of anything in that household.
His first word was 'mum', uttered with a heart melting smile as she came back home from work one evening. She had stopped dead in her tracks and fled the room trying to hold back tears. Oh what would she not give to hear that voice again?
They say be careful what you wish for, in case it comes true. She had wished him to be dead, she had wished him gone and now he was gone. But she was not celebrating now, was she?
She clutched the pillow hard to control the deep sobs that racked her thin frame. His every action had reminded her of her late husband, the mistakes he had made, and her sister's betrayal. She should be glad he was gone. But she wasn't.
The mango trees visible through her bedroom window were now full of scented flowers and would soon be laden with mangoes. He loved mangoes. Ronnie would have sat on Basanti’s shoulders and tried to pluck the mangoes with that adorable pout. He used to scream with delight when she chased him around the walled garden. He always tried to help her in tending to the plants. He loved to get his hands dirty but adamantly refused to take a bath even after hours of playing in the mud.
No. No. No! She mustn't think about him. But a fresh wave of tears burst through her. Every room every corner of this house held a reminder of all that she had lost. But now none of it mattered. Ronnie was gone. Gone forever! She had tried to save him. She had even sold this house to pay the ransom to the kidnappers. She had followed every instruction they gave. She had done everything! But still he was gone.
Last night the police had called. They had found a body. He was dead. That innocent little boy was dead and it was her fault. She was unable to love a motherless child as her own. She had cursed him and this was her punishment, her personal hell. God had given her a child to love and what did she do? She screamed at him, she pushed him away. And now he was gone. She had to now live with the guilt for eternity. After hours of crying she had fallen into a troubled sleep.
"Madam", Basanti hesitated at the doorway. She had also been crying Pallavi observed. She wiped her own tears hastily with the cuff of her oversized shirt as she tried to get dressed. "What is it? Is the taxi here already?" She was supposed to be at the morgue to identify the body. After last night she had lost all track of time.
"No madam. Inspector saab is on the line." She announced ominously. Pallavi hadn't even heard the phone ring. She had flung her own cellphone on the wall last night. Phone calls in this house were never the bearer of good news.
With heavy steps she walked towards the old fashioned landline. 'Hello, Pallavi Nanda" she spoke in a feeble voice.
"Hello ma'am. I have some news for you!"
"Yes."She replied feebly and the words the good inspector uttered next made her sit on the nearby sofa with stunned disbelief.
They had found the boy. Ronnie was alive. The body they had found yesterday was not Ronnie’s. Two men had been found trying to escape the city in a stolen car with a bag full of money and Raunak Nanda drugged and unconscious in the backseat. For the first time, a telephone call had brought good news in Vasundhara Niwas.
How long she sat there she could not tell. Once she realized she wasn't dreaming she screamed with joy, "Basanti! Prepare aam ras for dinner. Ronnie baba is coming home! He is coming home." She ran to embrace her loyal servant with tears in her eyes. But for the first time in many years the tears were of joy.