I crossed the outskirts, driving past the river running from the north end of the village, to the south. This river was the main source of water supply to the inhabitants. I loved this part of the place most, for it held untold stories of me and bhaiyya. Nostalgia hit hard, as my car entered familiar territories and I shrivelled at the memories. The place was ever resplendent with vast stretches of paddy fields, colourful houses with tiled roofs, lush green landscapes, and electricity use, strictly restricted to necessities.
A sudden gust of dawn wind, spreading fragrance of chrysanthemums throughout the territory, hit my face, as my car zoomed round the corner, before entering the main gates of the village. I slowed down speed, as apprehension clouded my mind, at the prospect of seeing my kith and kin, after a prolonged gap of five years. I had almost severed my ties with them and now had tremendous difficulty concentrating on the drive, considering the odds that were likely to show up. I decelerated it further, as I neared the lake beside the ‘Devi’ temple, obviously to catch a glimpse of the goddess and did a silent prayer, my hands never leaving the wheel though. Prayer was a sheer necessity of the hour to hush my inner chaos. I remembered Shipra, my fiancée who had persuaded me into this trip and now I prayed for her security too.
The boundless expanse of bright green paddy fields, ahead of the kutcha road, everything belonging to us, came into view and I had to exercise complete caution and vigilance over the drive, till I crossed over to the other side and reached the pucca road. Few minutes later, a huge mansion, almost palatial, came into my view. This was my home…the one that I’d stubbornly repudiated, never wanting to return, for it no longer had seemed home to me. I would never have turned up, had it not been for their pleas and if it was not the need of the hour. My Nani was seriously ill…probably these were her last moments and she wanted to see me urgently…or so I was told.
As I neared ‘home’, I steadily brought the car to a halt, parked it outside and got down. Amma was out in the garden, plucking flowers with my five-year-old niece Ananya and Babuji appeared engrossed in his early morning newspaper, sitting in the large veranda. Hearing a vehicle sound, all of them, dropping whatever they were at, ran towards me at once, as Ananya followed suit.
“Ye chachu hain?”, Ananya asked, her eyes wide with childish inquisitiveness. Last when I had seen her, she had been three months old but now she was a dainty little girl. I had been the most loved child of the family until Ananya, but circumstances drastically changed post her arrival as bhaiyya suddenly died…just like that…in his sleep, after which things took a turn for the worse. I now lived in Gurgaon and was engaged to Shipra, without the blessings of my family of course, for they had been neither invited nor informed.
As I stepped inside the mansion gate, Amma hugged me, happiness reflecting in her eyes as she kissed my forehead while Babuji looked on with moist eyes.
I couldn’t help the rising lump in my throat either, when I looked at their aged, vulnerable, septuagenarian faces and hugged her back, before going on to touch Babuji’s feet.
“I knew you’d return”, Amma said, amidst a flood of tears, as Babuji nodded. He had mellowed a lot. Bhabhi probably was in the kitchen and Nani was sleeping in her room, I was told.
Happiness and excitement at seeing their only son after a long time, was written, crystal clear on their faces, as they escorted me inside the house. It was only when I gazed around, at my childhood home, I realised how much I had missed being here. Nothing had changed in all these years.
“Your room has been tidied up and readied”, Amma said.
Bhabhi came out of the kitchen with a beaming smile and offered a glass of water.
“Welcome, devarji. Good that you came.” she said.
“How are you? Hope you are well.”, I enquired after her. We shared a warm camaraderie. Being my elder brother’s wife, I never addressed her by her name and neither did I called her ‘Bhabhi’, considering that she was four years younger to me.
All of them advised me to freshen up and relax for a while before I met Nani, which gave them an opportunity to chat for a while updating me on things that I had missed during all these years.
Snacks were laid out on the table, over which I informed them about my recent engagement. Their reaction was sombre, without the exhibition of any blood curdling resentment. Probably they’d already seen it coming and I, on my part, was glad that they finally understood. Ananya, who was seeing me for the first time, kept hovering around me, her eyes brimming with curiosity and rapt attention at whatever I said. She shied away, running to bhabhi, each time I called her to sit with me.
After some time, I went upstairs to see Nani. Gently, I swung open the door and entered the dim lit room, maintaining a soft stride, where Nani was lying on a four-poster bed cot. With great difficulty she turned, looking feebly in my direction, trying to figure me out, while I stood there transfixed, gaping at her transformation.
A flabby figure until few years ago, she now looked shrunk, underweight and nothing, just a bag of bones. Seeing me, she tried to rise herself into a sitting position, attempting to hold my hands. Her eyes brimmed with tears and her voice turned raspy, overcome by tender, indiscernible feelings and low sobs, choking her words, as she tried to speak. I was bewildered at seeing her so frail and incapacitated.
“Come beta. I was almost sure that I am going to die without seeing you. Good that you decided to be here, for I must speak to you. I cannot live with this burden anymore, on my chest nor would it be unerring of me, to enter the grave with it.”
I looked at the scrawny figure that seemed exceedingly fragile and weak, for any discussion now. I could have never imagined her in this plight, for someone who had been my hero, friend, philosopher and guide throughout my growing up years. My eyes welled up with tears and I found my voice with great difficulty.
“Relax Nani, you don’t look too well. So, don’t stress. Whatever it is, I’m sure, can certainly wait until you are alright. Now that I’m here, I will not go back unless you are completely well.”
“No beta. I don’t have that much time, and this has to be said, especially when so many family relations are at stake. Things must be straightened out for I can’t see my Diksha and Bhuvan (my mom and dad) in this condition anymore. Age and losses have both rendered them vulnerable and helpless. Destiny has stolen and deprived them of both their sons in different ways and though they don’t say it, I know how let down they feel. I can see it in their eyes…in their silent grief…in their lost ways of life…all because of a promise, that they’d given to my other daughter, many years ago.”
“What are you saying Nani? Which daughter are you talking about? As far as I know, mom is the only daughter you have ever had. And, what kind of promise?”, I asked astounded.
“No beta. I had one more daughter…Chanchal…your biological mother. She developed some incurable delivery complications after giving you birth and passed away when you were just a few months old. Everyone including her knew that she was slowly dying and your paternal family did not wish to shoulder your responsibility as they wanted to get your father remarried.
Your mother was aware of these developments in her in-law‘s house. So, before her demise, she called Diksha and Bhuvan to discuss your issue. Chanchal was extremely attached to her Didi and Jiju who always reciprocated her affections. They agreed to legally adopt you, with a promise that your parentage will never be revealed to you. Your biological father gave a similar promise to renounce all his rights over you. You are not their birth child beta, though they have never ever thought of you as anything otherwise than their own biological son. In return, your mother also declared that when the time came, they could exercise a similar right over this son of theirs i.e. you. That is why when your bhaiyya suddenly passed away, we felt that you should marry Sheela and adopt their child…so that Sheela doesn’t lead an infirm life as a widow. “
I felt like a rug being swept out from under my feet. I sat there shell-shocked… my torso numb and my hands copiously trembling, at knowing that I was a child who was heartlessly abandoned by my blood family. It was the harshest truth that anybody could bear pertaining to their existence. I felt horrific and sick with nausea and silently wept, while Nani kept soothing me, constantly saying ‘It’s alright son. Let bygones be bygones. What matters now is you are here with us. You are our child and you are lucky to have been raised by such parents as these. We never wanted to tell you these facts, knowing that you would be upset.’
I had least expected events to unfold this way. My anguish at being exposed to the truth that I was not their son and that I did not belong to this family in anyway, mightily weighed on my heart. Here I was, usurping a royal treatment all along and living like I owned the world while it was me and Nani, who had arrived in this house as penniless destitute, hard-pressed for support.
A truth hard to accept indeed, for my mind refused to wake up to the new discoveries, especially with the galore of love and care of Amma and Babuji, etched upon my heart. How could everything be erased just like that? As I looked back, nowhere had my rights in this house been anytime lesser than bhaiyya’s…in fact most of the time, they had been always notches higher than what bhaiyya had ever got and which was the case even now, for it was only few minutes ago that Babuji was talking of approaching the lawyer for equi-division of the family property between me and Bhabhi.
Guilt seared through me, but not for rejecting my family’s suggestion of marrying Bhabhi. Well! How could I? I had always looked at her as my Bhabhi and nothing else. Her sentiments were no different, I knew fully well, for, even though she had not said anything, her awkwardness at the proposition, had been distinctly evident. I could clearly sense it. It would have been a faux pas, if we’d gone ahead. But the argument with Babuji, who had been heartbroken then, refusing to dislodge from his stand, had got ballooned and in the heat of the moment, it had resulted into estrangements. Unyielding, I opted out of the house.
Besides, Bhabhi infinitely loved bhaiyya, for when I refused, I did not miss that look of respect for me, in her eyes. I had been very pragmatic and perfect in my decision and I knew that she counted on me for it. Something about her trust had made me confident. Only my family did not understand which is why I had to leave them alone… to protect our sanity and coherence.
But ‘this’ revelation today, had put me into an entirely different spot. I was ‘NOT FAMILY’ now and yet this was my family…the only one that I ever had and will ever and always have. I couldn’t but recall all those sacrifices and compromises, Babuji and Amma had made, in raising me and making me the man I was today and here I was, standing alone and guilty. Instead of trying to convince them into seeing sense, I had deserted them in times of their agony and need. All I could do now was hold on to Nani’s hand and cry.
“I will make amends Nani, don’t you worry. I promise you that. You relax for now and go to sleep. You’ve been up for a long while.”, I told her, for she appeared drained, narrating the entire tale, also while remembering her lost daughter who was my mother. I had never seen a pic of her till date, probably for a good reason…no one had wanted to reveal my unfortunate past to me, except when it became inescapable, in a bid to sort out resentments. I didn’t want to know anything about that man who was my biological father or his family either. They were as good as dead to me, as I had always been to them. It was better they remain forever buried.
But as far as Amma and Babuji were concerned, all was not yet lost. I could still restore many things and I intended to do just that. Laboriously, I dragged myself up and set out to go down.
Seeing me in a state, everyone rose from their seats, concern writ upon their faces. I slumped on the sofa, as Amma and Babuji rushed to sit beside me. Sobs racked my body while I hugged them both tight. Bhabhi handed over a glass of water which I respectfully took, while Amma and Babuji kept comforting me.
I refrained from telling them any part of the conversation between me and Nani. Probably they were presuming Nani’s condition to be the reason behind my distress. I had no intention to thank them either. Whoever thanks their own family? If they had not been there, I would have not been here. It was as simple as that. I had always loved them wholeheartedly but did much more now, for I could detect no flaw in their devotion and care towards me.
After a while, I spoke up to inform them of my decision.
“Amma, Babuji, Bhabhi, I’ve seen Nani’s condition. The fact that you are getting older, doesn’t escape my observation either. So, I have a proposal. Do not make me a part of your will. Transfer everything to Bhabhi instead. Being employed elsewhere, I do not intend to come back and settle down in a village. Shipra too is from the city. Besides, she is a working woman.
Bhabhi is fairly educated and can take on the reins of this estate, also manage it well. We will fully support her until she becomes hands-on, even if that means, I’ve to visit here more often. And in case, she decides to remarry in the future, we should assist her in building her life.
On my part, my home and heart will always remain open to all of you, as you are all the family I have.” For the first time, I had addressed Sheela as ‘Bhabhi’. It was high time I accorded her the respect she deserved.
Everyone looked at me with surprise, but I believe, they would need some time to think through, before coming to a finality. I am though truly clear about my decision, that I am never going to take a penny from the estate for it is simply not mine. Barring this loving family, everything else, rightfully belonged to Bhabhi and Ananya.
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