As the last of the mourners left after the twelfth day ceremonial rites, the three bedroom apartment seemed to swallow Anita with its deadly silence. Mahesh, her husband had passed away earlier that month. A sudden, massive cardiac arrest had claimed his life, leaving her alone in this world .Well, not quite alone, there was Riya, his sixteen-year-old daughter, her step-daughter. There was her family back home. But without him, she had no clue how she would cope. The finances were taken care of. His prudent planning and foresight had ensured that. Life ahead seemed a hazy blur, a vacuum.
She tossed and turned on her bed, unable to sleep. Riya had retreated to her room with her music and earphones, as always. Even at this time of grief, she was distant and unavailable. Anita’s heart ached for the girl. Her father’s death had made her an orphan. She wanted to comfort her, tell her that she wasn’t alone. But Riya wouldn’t let her.
Anita came from a small town in interior Karnataka. She was the oldest of four daughters born to a middle class school teacher..
With her dark complexion and not so striking features, she wasn’t a girl anyone would give a second glance to. She had managed to graduate in arts from the local college. Throughout her growing up years, she was made aware of her plain looks by family and friends. She had been a vivacious and smart girl during her primary school days. But as she stepped into the teen years, comparison with good looking cousins and insensitive comments from so called ‘friends’ had made her lose her self confidence. She stopped participating in extra-curricular activities and withdrew into a shell. She grew up to be an ordinary girl with nothing special about her-neither looks, nor talent. If there was one word for her life, it was ‘mediocre’.
She had lost track of the number of young men who had rejected her after seeing her photograph. Sometimes, she had made it to the next round and had been paraded in her best silk saree in front of a prospective groom and his family, only to be rejected.
When Ramanna, the marriage broker brought Mahesh’s proposal, her father had pleaded her to accept.
‘Anita, I have three more daughters to think of. You are thirty two and Ramanna tells me this guy is decent. He is forty and has a ten year old daughter. He lost his wife to cancer two years ago. He needs a wife to look after him and the poor girl needs a mother. He is a Senior Manager in Canara bank and has a three bedroom apartment in Indiranagar in Bangalore. Please, don’t say no,’ he had requested.
Anita hadn’t wanted to burden her father anymore than she already had. She agreed. Two months later, they were married in a modest ceremony. Riya had sulked throughout the wedding. It was understandable. Hard as it was to lose her mother at such a young age, seeing a stranger step into her shoes was something she couldn’t accept.
Mahesh turned out to be a good husband. Anita saw herself slip into the role of his wife seamlessly, transforming his neglected house into a warm home again. Any regrets she had for marrying a widower dissipated within days. He made her feel loved and she was happy that she agreed to be his wife. Her relationship with Riya was strained in contrast. It wasn’t as if she didn’t try. During the early days, she cooked her favourite dishes, tried to be involved in her activities, her homework, hoping to break the ice and gain a place in her heart. Bur Riya was unreachable.
‘Dad, please tell her not to try to be my mother because she isn’t. Tell her to stop acting like Mom, I hate her. I miss Mummy,’ she had bawled and shut the door of her room behind her. Mahesh had helplessly shrugged. After a few more attempts, Anita had given up. Riya had closed the doors of her heart and Anita lacked the courage to knock again. She did what was required of her-packed her lunch, ironed her uniform, saw that her needs were looked after. Her attempts at conversation were always met with monosyllabic responses, even after six years.
When Mahesh was alive, it didn’t matter so much as he was there for Riya. She had shared everything with him. Every evening, they sat in the balcony, talking about their day. She would share her dreams, her anxieties-everything with him.
The next day, Anita saw Riya sitting alone on the cane swing in the balcony. She was staring at the children playing on the ground below, with a blank look. Anita knew she missed her father badly. Her heart ached to see her like this. She desperately wanted to comfort her. She couldn’t, no matter how hard she tried.
Days turned into months. Nothing seemed to change. Riya was compelled to talk to Anita a little more than before. Having lost her father, she had to depend on Anita when she needed anything. A signature on the report card, money for buying school needs-necessary conversations that she couldn’t avoid. But beyond those absolutely unavoidable talks, she was still distant and cold.
Riya had started coming home late these days. She was always out with friends. Anita had tried telling her to return on time, but Riya had started at her angrily. Anita was worried for her, but found it a real challenge to be strict without antagonising her. Their delicate relationship was already fragile and she was scared of straining it further.
One evening, when Riya wasn’t back at 10 pm, Anita grew jittery and decided to have a talk with her.
Riya stepped in at 10:35 pm and tossed her bag carelessly on the sofa. Ignoring Anita as usual, she stepped towards her room.
‘Riya, why are you so late?’ Anita asked, trying to keep her anger in check
‘I was hanging out with a friend.’
‘May I know who that friend is? I was worried, you know?’ Anita said a little sternly.
‘Who asked you to worry? I am sixteen and I can take care of myself. I don’t need your interrogation. So, strop trying to act as if you care for me, okay? Please stay out of my life,’ she had blurted and stomped away angrily.
Anita felt hot tears sting her eyes. She felt helpless and alone. Why did Mahesh have to leave her so soon? How could she reason with this stubborn girl? It didn’t matter how Riya treated her. She was her responsibility and she owed it to Mahesh to see that his daughter was safe and happy. But her hands were tied with ropes of helplessness.
Riya’s school grades had started deteriorating and her class teacher had called Anita for a meeting.
‘I know this has been a difficult year for Riya, but please be aware that she is losing interest in studies. Board exams are just a few months away and looking at her internal assessment marks, I think she needs to work a little more. 10th standard is a milestone year and it would be a shame to see her waste it away. She has always been a brilliant student. But these days, she doesn’t seem to be herself. Please talk to her, see if she needs any help, ‘ she had advised.
Anita decided she would talk to her. Riya would have to listen. She would not let rejection and hurtful words impact her. Determined to have that heart to heart conversation, Anita waited for Riya to return. Riya came in early that day, looking tired.
‘Are you feeling Okay, Riya?’ she asked with concern.
‘I’m fine .’
‘Rest for a while if you want, but we need to talk today.’
‘Here, have this hot chocolate and rest for a while, we’ll talk after dinner,’ she said handing her the steaming mug.
Riya took the mug and closed the door behind her. She didn’t even come out for dinner.
When Anita went to check, she was sound asleep.
There were dark circles under her eyes. Anita pushed away a strand of hair from her face and covered her with a blanket. She switched the lights off and tiptoed out of the room. Their talk would have to wait.
The next morning, when Riya didn’t wake up on time for school, Anita was worried.
‘Are you okay Riya? Do you have a fever or something? ‘she asked, touching her forehead that was damp with beads of perspiration.
‘ I am feeling a little sick. I won’t go to school today,’ she said and pulled the blanket back on her face.
Anita had an intuition that something wasn’t right.
‘Are you on your period?’ she asked, knowing that Riya usually had painful cramps during that time of the month.
Riya sat upright suddenly. She was about to say something, then looked away. Was it guilt that Anita saw in her eyes?
She thought she would ask her after she felt better.
Anita was about to leave the room when Riya’s voice stopped her in her tracks.
‘I am late by a month. I still haven’t got my chums.’
An ominous warning bell rang in Anita’s ears.
‘That happens sometimes, you know. You were stressed because of school and exams and all,’ the words sounded unconvincing even to her own ears.
Suddenly, Riya started sobbing clutching her knees. Anita rushed to her side .
‘Please Riya, don’t cry. What happened? You can tell me, ‘ she tried to comfort her step daughter who looked so distraught, so lonely.
On an impulse, Anita hugged her. She knew her embrace wasn’t welcome, but that was the least she could do at the moment to make Riya feel better.
Riya didn’t resist. She didn’t reciprocate either.
After a while, she said in a feeble voice ‘I am so scared.’
Anita instinctively knew what she was scared of.
‘You can tell me everything you know. I may not be your mother. But you can consider me as a friend. When we are in trouble, we all need a friend to confide in. Whatever the problem is, we can solve it together. You have got me, you aren’t alone in this, okay?’ she said looking into her scared eyes.
‘Okay,’ said Riya and Anita patiently waited for more to come.
‘I have been meeting Rahul since sometime. He is Seema’s brother and is studying Engineering. I think he is cool. He takes me out for movies, dinners. I really love him. He loves me too, he said that himself.’
Anita was unsure how to ask the obvious question. She twitched her hands in hesitation.
‘Riya, have you ever…’ she hesitated again.
‘Yes, I have ! I have met him at his friend, Rohan’s place alone so many times. And yes, we have done it, ‘ she blurted in one breath as if she couldn’t say it if the moment was gone.
‘But I love him so much, I want to spend my life with him, I want to marry him, ‘ Riya’s voice was almost a whisper.
‘Listen Riya, you are too young. This isn’t the age for such things. You have years of college ahead of you. You need to graduate, make a career for yourself, settle in life before you even think of marriage,’ she said trying to keep calm for Riya’s sake. Inwardly, she was shaking with fear on how to cope if things got out of hand.
‘I wish Dad was here …’ she sobbed.
‘Your Dad wouldn’t be happy with all this, you know? He would want to see you blossom into a bright, successful woman before you find the man of your dreams.’
‘I don’t know what to do. I hate myself. I hate my life,’ she sobbed into her pillow.
Anita caressed her hair in an attempt to comfort her and left the room , mentally making a note to buy a pregnancy kit from the pharmacy. She realised that this was the longest conversation they had in the last six years.
That night, Riya sat, huddled on the bathroom floor as she stared at the two pink lines on the Preganews pregnancy kit. TV commercials indicated that those two lines brought happiness and excitement in a woman’s life. At the moment, those lines brought nothing but fear, fear of an uncertain future, fear of this unwanted pregnancy, fear of losing Rahul.
She held up the kit for Anita to see, turning her eyes away with shame and guilt. Anita missed Mahesh at that moment. She wanted him here, to handle everything, to make things right again. It was too much for her to tackle alone. She couldn’t confide in anyone, couldn’t ask for help. She couldn’t tell her parents or her sisters. Old fashioned that they were, they would be of no help. Riya was already writhing in remorse and guilt. Anita didn’t want to add to it by letting others know. Whatever it was, she had to do this herself. Handle this crisis, console Riya, and bring her back from the dark depths of despair.
She booked an appointment with the obstetrician for the next day.
Two days later, they were back home. The pregnancy was taken care of. But Riya would need a long time to heal. Anita met Rahul’s parents and apprised them of the happenings. She warned them of dire consequences if Rahul tried to mess with her minor daughter again. Rahul got the message and promised to not see her again.
Anita was finally able to convince Riya that what she had with Rahul was an immature infatuation and not love. It took some time, but Riya was finally able to get him out of her head .She took Riya for walks in the garden, played chess with her in the evenings, took her shopping at all her favourite stores. Slowly, Riya started directing her attention back to her studies and the grades of her next exam seemed to reflect the improvement in her.
Anita woke up at five every morning and shared a hot cup of tea with Riya as she buried herself in her books and board exam preparations. Every evening, they went for a walk, stopping to have sugarcane juice on the way. Riya introduced some of her school friends to Anita and they liked her instantly. She packed Riya’s favourite dishes for lunch. One day, Riya asked her to pack her a second lunch box for her friends. They had become fans of her cooking. Anita gladly obliged.
After the last exam, they all celebrated together at home. Anita prepared a lavish lunch for all of them and took them out for a movie at the Forum mall.
A month later, it was the day when Riya’s results would be declared. She was anxiously scanning her phone since morning with quickened heart beats. At 2 pm, she screamed ‘The results are out!’. Her eyes shone with glee as she saw the numbers 576/600. She had scored 96%. Few months ago, this had seemed unachievable, when she was down in the dumps.
She realised that it was Anita’s love and support that had made it possible. She couldn’t have done it without her.
‘How much did you score?’ asked Anita as she walked into her room.
Riya rushed to her and embraced her so tightly that Anita couldn’t breathe for a moment. She let go of her only after two whole minutes.
‘Thank you, Mom, Thank you for everything. I have been so rude to you throughout, I am so sorry, really, I am .I love you, Mom,’ Riya sobbed.
Anita’s heart did a little dance. The exam result was forgotten. Riya just called her ‘Mom’. Nothing else mattered at the moment.
“SShhhhh….’ she silenced her and whispered through her tears ‘I love you too, baby.’
* * *
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