Stories Apne Apne by Raj Deepali Pandey

She walked down the stairs barefoot, to be as quiet as possible. It was 1 a.m. The dim street lights shining through the glass panes of the windows were enough to show her the way without tripping over the stuffs. She went to the kitchen and switched on the lights. She opened and closed three drawers, restlessly searching for something she couldn’t find. Finally, she found the knives in the fourth drawer. She took out a vegetable knife, closed the drawer carefully, and as soon as she turned back she found Ridhima standing at the door of the kitchen, watching her intently.

She pulled her hands at her back, trying to hide the knife, still speechless and embarrassed. Meanwhile, Ridhima walked in the kitchen, opened the fridge and took out the box of pastries. She arranged two pastries on the plate with spoons and took it to Mishti. “My little sweet- toothed devil, your name suits you perfectly. I knew in spite of my warning you’ll go looking after the pastries after I slept. But I caught you”, she pulled her cheeks lovingly. Little Mishti was smiling like an innocent thief caught in the act, trying to defend herself in vain, “I just wanted to taste one.” “Okay, but you don’t need a knife for the pastries. Its used for the cake.” Mishti nodded her head slightly and went back to keep the knife.

At the dining table both of them were enjoying the blissful taste of the black forest pastry. Wiping off the cream from Mishti’s face, Ridhima asked, “So what do you want to have for breakfast tomorrow?” “Anything you’ll cook for me aunty.” Mishti replied with innocence. Her soft words pierced Ridhima’s heart like a spear. Hesitantly and carefully she spoke, “Why don’t you still call me mom, dear?” Mishti was puzzled, unable to understand what to say, “I….I don’t know how…..but my mom was..” Watching her stutter she felt guilty of putting a kid in such a difficult situation, and she thought of making amends. “It’s okay dear, call me whatever you like, I would still love you.” She gave her a pat on her cheek and Mishti resumed her treat.

“When is uncle coming back?”

“He’ll be back in two days. He called to say he’s missing you badly, and wants to come back soon for his little princess.” Ridhima stroked her hair lovingly.

“I miss him too.” Mishti said in a faint, sleepy voice. In two minutes, she dozed off.

Ridhima looked at the little angel sleeping in her arms. Just a month ago she and her husband Sagar brought her home. They never knew that within such a short span of time this eight year old would fill the void of their lives and give them the joy of parenthood.

They were a happily married couple. Everything went well in their lives. Unfortunately, Ridhima suffered two miscarriages in less than two years of their marriage. Medical reports showed that her organs were too fragile to bear a baby, and even it would happen, the pregnancy could pose serious threats on her body. They consulted the best doctors, but all unanimously supported the reports. Battling with the trauma of miscarriages and thought of not being able to bear a child ever, she lost all hopes. Seeing her condition Sagar knew that only the feeling of motherhood could have brought back her smile. He persuaded her that they should adopt a child. When he conveyed his decision to their families, his family agreed, a little hesitantly. But her orthodox parents were shocked at this decision. Her mother called her and expressed her disapproval over adoption, saying it was like investing time and money on someone who can never be yours, and told her to persuade Sagar to drop the decision. To which Ridhima angrily replied that she should be grateful to the man who wanted to adopt the child instead of leaving her daughter and marrying another woman for the sake of continuing his lineage. Her mother became quiet and never said a word about it again.

The sizzling sound of eggs on the hot pan filled Mishti with immense joy and appetite, while she waited for her breakfast on the Sunday morning. Ridhima Bhardwaj, a Brahmin by birth and married in a staunch Brahmin household, was a pure vegetarian, who was now happily compromising with her principles for the happiness of her child. The aroma of the scrambled eggs sent little one to the nostalgic journey, reminding her of her mother’s cooking. Within few minutes, she finished the plate of her favourite delicacy.

“It was very tasty. Will you cook it every Sunday for me?”

“Sure, dear.” Ridhima said, patting her cheek lovingly.”

The doorbell rang. Mishti took the plate to the kitchen, while Ridhima went to open the door. Her biggest nightmare was standing at the door in broad daylight. Meera Bua, her father’s only sister, and the bossiest, nosiest of the relatives. Ridhima’s genuine smile was now replaced by a forced one to welcome the unwanted guest.

“Ridhima beta, I was just passing by your house, so thought of meeting you and your adopted child.” She said with a wide grin.

Came here to meet me? Or to sneak peek into my house or my family matters? Ridhima’s inner voice became active for a while.

“Sure, please come in bua.” Ridhima ushered her inside the house. Mishti came running to meet the new guest.

Aunt gave a contemptuous look to Mishti, while Ridhima said, “Mishti, she’s my bua, and your nani. Greet her beta.” While Mishti folded her hands in respect to Meera, all she said was, “She would look so pretty, only if she….”

Ridhima sensed it coming. She decided to send Mishti away to save her from any humiliation. “Beta, go out and play with your friends in the park.” “Okay aunty.” Mishti replied and ran out of the house. While Ridhima went to close the door, aunt started her rant. “She calls you aunty? She doesn’t regard you as her mother and you call her your daughter? And Mishti? She’s Bengali? Couldn’t you adopt a Brahmin girl instead of this meat eating Bengali? And she’s so dark why didn’t you adopt a light complexioned girl? Have you lost your brains? Didn’t your in- laws stop you?

“Bua, I don’t mind what she calls me. She loves me and that’s enough. Nobody in my family has any problem with her caste, or her skin colour. She’s beautiful. Even Naina has a dusky complexion. Do you have any problem with that too?” Ridhima blurted, trying hard to suppress her anger.

“Naina is my own child. I couldn’t help her dark complexion. Only I know how much I bear because of that. We couldn’t find a suitable groom for her because everybody wants a fair bride. That’s why I was telling you to adopt a fairer girl, I don’t want you to go through what all I am experiencing.” She burst into tears, dabbing the end of her saree on her cheeks.

Ridhima felt guilty for her words. “I don’t mean that, bua. Naina is beautiful. I don’t understand why people are judged by their skin colour. And Naina is too young to marry. Let her study and make her career, then you’ll find a perfect groom for her.”

Bua wiped her tears and calmed herself. “At least change her name. Now she’s not from a Bengali household.”

“I can’t. Her mother named her Mishti, and we all like the name.”

Aunt knew she couldn’t achieve the desired goals of brainwashing her smart niece, so she dropped the idea.

“I’ll be back in a minute.” Ridhima went towards the kitchen. She came back with a large glass of orange juice and offered it to her unwelcomed guest.

“Though we don’t even drink a glass of water in our daughters’ matrimonial home, but it’s too hot outside and I feel dehydrated.” She gulped down the glass of juice and kept it on the table. Ridhima went back again to the kitchen to keep the glass, or primarily, to curtail the time to be spent with the nice aunt.

She came back after two minutes, and found aunt examining the floor intently. “So you got the wooden flooring done in the house. Looks nice. Damadji must be earning well. But why didn’t you go for the Italian marbles. My son Rakesh got it done for his house in Delhi. It looks breathtakingly beautiful.”

Of course. Your capable son got generous amount of charity from his in- laws to build a luxurious house, while my incapable husband married a middle- class girl without any dowry and toiled hard to build this house with the cheap wooden flooring.

“Oh, that’s great.” She faked the excitement.

“Let me see your renovated house. I couldn’t even come for the house warming party.” Aunt got up and headed to the direction of the kitchen. Ridhima followed her, disinterested.

Aunt let out a scream, which scared the hell out of Ridhima. She ran towards her to find out what happened. The cause of her horror was lying next to the gas stove, the broken egg shells which Ridhima forgot to remove after cooking.

Damn! Now this lady would create a scene.

“You brought eggs! For that Bengali girl? You deteriorated our religious ethics for that girl. Nobody in our family has ever touched eggs. And you cooked it for that outsider! You brought shame to our family.”

Yes bua. In a society where your son can come home late at night dead drunk and still be called an ideal son, mine cooking eggs for my daughter would surely attach stigma to our deeply rooted ethics.

“The maid would be coming in an hour, bua. She’ll wash the kitchen before I proceed to cook anything else.” Ridhima replied in a defensive tone.

“And your sins? How are you going to wash them off from your soul?”

This lady could surely give a run to the Indian daily soap actresses for money.

“Bengalis eat fish, don’t they? I know you must have started cooking that also. I can never think of having a glass of water in a daughter’s house. God knows what destroyed my discretion that today I had a glass of juice at your polluted house.”

Ridhima looked at the empty tetra pack of Tropicana fruit juice lying crushed in the dustbin. So I wasted its nutritious contents on the undeserving person, only to give her enough stamina to scream at me now.

Aunt sped out of the kitchen. Ridhima followed her, pleading half heartedly, “Please stay a little longer bua, don’t be angry with me”, silently praying she doesn’t stay.

“No beta, I can’t. I can’t stand the stench of the eggs in your house.” Aunt replied dramatically.

I wonder how she couldn’t smell the eggs before watching the broken shells in the kitchen.

“Children forget the teachings of the elder ones once they think they have grown up. I can’t command you anything, but would pray God gives you some discretion and restore the lost ethics within you. Please don’t forget your culture for some Bengali girl.” Aunt said as she went out of the door.

“Sure bua.” Ridhima replied as she closed the door behind her, heaving a sigh of relief. The catastrophe finally ended.

“I missed you so much.” Ridhima hugged Sagar as he came back to the house.

“I missed you too.” Sagar said, smiling at her. “Where’s Mishti?”

“She’s studying in her room.”

“Come with me, I’ve got some gifts for both of you.”

“You go and meet her first, I’ll come in a while.” She said, giving the father- daughter duo some time of their own.

Mishti undoubtedly loved Ridhima, but was more attached to Sagar. The reason being that she had a picture of her late mother in her mind, and it was tough for her to give that place to anyone else. But she never saw her father, so she enjoyed every bit of pampering by Sagar. She was just one month old when her father left her and her mother alone to marry another woman. Since then her mother brought up Mishti as a single parent. She took up the job of sewing and knitting for the locals of her area, and also gave tuitions to the kids. She wanted to give every facility to Mishti, got her enrolled in a decent school, and worked hard to earn as much as possible to cover up any deficiency in her life. Gradually she started losing her health. With all her earnings being spent on Mishti’s education and well- being, she couldn’t afford proper treatment for herself. And one day, she died. For the six year old Mishti, it was like the end of the world. Her relatives and acquaintances refused to look after her. Consequently, one of them gave her to the orphanage. For two years she stayed in the orphanage. She rarely talked to anybody, rarely laughed unlike the other kids. She stayed quiet, and at times cried incessantly, missing her mom. Whenever someone came up for adopting the child, she silently prayed to be chosen. But nobody ever took her home. She had sharp features, her big eyes being the most prominent characteristic of her face. Her waist- length lustrous hair added to her beauty. But most of the people ignored her only because of her dusky complexion. Her prayers were finally answered when Ridhima and Sagar came up to adopt a child. Looking in her innocent, sad, hopeful eyes Ridhima instantly felt a connection with her, and decided to take her home.

Months passed since Mishti entered her new home. Ridhima did everything to make her feel comfortable and loved. She even resigned from her well- paid job to entirely focus on her upbringing. Though she was widely criticised for this move by her family, and she plainly told them, ” I may get a job anytime in the future, but as for now I can’t leave Mishti in the hands of a nanny. She needs a family, that’s why we brought her home.” Sagar supported her in all her decisions, for he had seen the happiness on her face after the coming of Mishti which was long lost.

From her meals to her studies Ridhima took care of everything in the best possible way. Mishti was doing good in academics, and that made Ridhima proud. She thought that her efforts are bearing fruits, and that she can be a good parent to her.

In spite of all this, Mishti never called her mom. Ridhima accepted it as her fate and was slowly coming to the terms that the little one couldn’t imagine her in her mother’s place. Moreover it would be unfair to expect a child to forget her late mother. The presence of Mishti in her life was enough to give her the feeling of motherhood, yet she deeply craved to be called as a mom by her.

Mothers’ Day was about to arrive, and so the mandatory festive- linked extra- curriculum in schools too. Mishti’s class was given the task of making a handmade card with a letter for their mothers as a gift for Mothers’ Day. Mishti was hesitant to participate at first, but after giving it a thought, she finally did. She made a beautiful card, though she wasn’t so good in arts, yet she tried her best. She poured out her heart in her letter, thus lessening its burden of emotions a little. After completing it she simply kept in in her bag, knowing she won’t be able to gift it to her mother ever.

“Mishti, did you take out the lunchbox of your bag?” Ridhima asked while chopping the vegetables.

“Sorry aunty, I forgot.”

“Please bring it to the kitchen for washing.”

She looked at Mishti’s water colour smeared hands, as the little one was trying to paint a drawing with great attempts. Mishti looked back at her, raising her hands, smiling innocently.

“It’s okay, I’ll do that.” Ridhima smiled at her and went to the room.

She opened her bag, and took out the lunchbox. As soon as she was about to close the bag, her eyes rested on a set colourful pages between the pages of a book. Curiously, she took it out. A handmade card, with “HAPPY MOTHERS’ DAY” written on the top. She smiled. A picture of a lady and a little girl holding her hand and strolling in a garden was drawn on its cover. Carefully, Ridhima opened the card and found few inner pages attached to it. A letter! Ridhima’s heart skipped a beat. What if something she didn’t want to hear was written in it? Yet she couldn’t stop the urge of reading the letter and went ahead.

“Dear Maa,

It’s been two years since you left me. I still miss you and want you to come back. You shouldn’t have left me alone. Nobody loved me after you left. They left me at the orphanage. There were many children there like me, who had no mother and father, they all used to tell me that someday somebody would take us to their home and love us and would get us everything we want. I made few friends. But after sometime all of them were taken away and they were very happy while leaving. But nobody came to take me. I became lonely and cried a lot. Some older children called me dark and ugly and said nobody would take me ever. I wanted to fight with them but they were bigger than me. I was afraid of them. I used to cry and miss you a lot.”

Ridhima couldn’t hold back her tears. The letter bore a testimony to the untold miseries the little one had to go through in the two years. Gathering the courage she read further…

“Then one day an aunty and uncle came. I thought they also would not choose me. But aunty came up to me and asked my name and asked whether I want to go with her. I became very happy. She said that I am very beautiful. Nobody ever called me beautiful except you Maa. When she said that I knew she was a nice person.

I went to their house. Uncle and aunty both love me a lot. Earlier when I was in school kids used to tease me by saying that my father left me. But now uncle says he’s my father. He plays with me, gets me lots of toys and dresses, drops me to the school and loves me a lot. Now I call him Papa. Nobody teases me at school now, I also have a family.

Aunty also loves me a lot. She cooks my favourite food, and also helps me in studies. She tells me stories if I don’t feel sleepy. She is just like you Maa. I also want to be like her when I grow up. Earlier I was angry with God for taking you away, but now I am very happy  for giving me a family.

Maa, everybody says she is my mother now, and I should call her mom. I also want to, but I am afraid, what if she left me like you did? After you went away Mami told me I am not a good daughter and I am unlucky that’s why my mother left me. What if I call her maa and she leaves me too? I love her very much and I want her to stay with me forever. I know she is my mother now and she becomes sad when I call her aunty but I am afraid of calling her that. I don’t know what to do. Please help me Maa. I love you and I miss you.”

Closing the last page, Ridhima sobbed incessantly. Her tears were the farrago of pain she felt while knowing about the miseries and dilemma of her eight year old girl, and also the overwhelming feeling of joy she felt knowing the extent of her daughter’s love for her. She saw Mishti standing at the door, with tears in her eyes.

Wiping her tears, Ridhima gestured at Mishti to come to her. Mishti went and sat next to her. Ridhima wiped her tears and stroked her hair, saying, “I’ll never leave you my baby, we’ll always stay together.”

Mishti looked at her, not saying a word.

“What? I said I’ll never leave you. Don’t you trust me?” Ridhima said, with a sad baby- like face.

“Promise?” Mishti held out her palm to her.

“Promise”. Ridhima held her hand, taking an innocent, truthful and beautiful vow.

In an instant Mishti embraced her tightly, not wanting to let go of her. Ridhima pecked her cheek, unable to stop her tears of joy.

“Happy Mothers’ Day, Maa. You are the best mother in the world.” Mishti whispered in Ridhima’s ears, still entwined in her arms.

The injuries inflicted upon her soul by the tantrums of being a sterile woman, were all healed by those innocent and pure words of her daughter.