It had been five years now.
The face haunted me in my dreams. A sad face which kept asking me for something I did not seem to understand.
Sometimes I saw myself gazing into a mirror and the same face glared back at me.
At other times, I would be stuck in a dark hollow like that of a tree trunk with the same face next to me.
The particularly disturbing visuals were the ones in which I seemed to be on a train, looking out of the window, spotting that face amidst a sea of people on the platform, staring at me in obvious despair .
The eyes always pierced through my heart. Mostly, they were melancholic, occasionally anguished and rarely, they softened, wanting to convey something. And they were unnervingly familiar.
As familiar as they had appeared to me when I got a glimpse of them peering at me from behind the counter at a crowded bakery in Mussoorie, half a decade back.
Oh yes! In all probability, the face and eyes belonged to someone real ,existing in another city, but why they hounded me was beyond me.
“Anish, did my paint brushes venture into your room to shake a leg to the jarring punk rock music your new speaker was throwing at us last night?” A sharp voice jolted me out of my reverie.
My sister stood impatiently at the door of my bedroom. Anya, eight years elder to me, was a recluse. She didn’t interact much, preferring to stay locked in her room, painting for hours at an end. She usually participated in family conversations with monosyllabic responses or grunts and the rare, full sentences that she uttered were so dipped in sarcasm, that they scared most people away. Not me though. I, happened to be an overtly curious and irritatingly optimistic guy, who liked her weird sense of humour.
From sneaking into her room through the balcony to see her artwork, to hiding her beloved brushes to poking her incessantly about her dark paintings, I did it all. Victory bells chimed in my head and I smirked with delight whenever my idiotic actions coaxed my sister to speak to me. Somewhere deep inside, I craved to connect with my sibling.
Grinning at her sheepishly, I handed over her prized possessions, offering her a cup of coffee as redemption. As always, she declined my irresistible offer, opting to go into hibernation again. Sigh! More than seventeen years of being around each other without a heartfelt dialogue.
Wishing myself better luck next time, I concentrated on the positives.
I led a more than comfortable life in a posh residential complex in the so called millenium city of Gurgaon, thanks to my generous parents. I had no qualms admitting that I was the apple of their eye, spoilt to quite an extent by an excess of affection, adulation and indulgence. The smallest of demands I made, inevitably became a mission to be accomplished by my caregivers.
Over with my grade 12th exams and having secured a seat in a coveted institute for hospitality management abroad, I spent the summers in an euphoric trance. One step closer to my ambition of becoming a world class chef, I felt I ruled the planet! Well, almost! But for the countless nights ruled by the face of a nameless girl from Mussoorie.
That was not my first visit to the “queen of hill-stations”. Our ancestral family home being in Haridwar, I had spent some memorable childhood summers at the foothills of the Himalayas with my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Daytrips and picnics to the nearby picturesque cities of Rishikesh, Dehradun and Mussoorie were a regular affair. Much to my dismay, those visits became short, occasional and focused on family obligations over time, the last two trips marking the successive passing away of my grandparents. The Mussoorie encounter happened, when my protective parents, seeing me overwhelmed with the line of rituals around my grandmother’s funeral, sent me away for a break with an older cousin. And that’s from where the saga of nightmares began.
Staying in the brick and mortar city of Gurgaon, it was not difficult to alienate yourself from your roots. The city was like the step-mother who enticed you enough to make you forget your birthmother but turned her back on you as soon as you faltered. My father had fallen prey to this fallacy. Dad was a self- made entrepreneur or as I called it ‘earn-tepreneur. He earned not merely to afford the life of luxuries we led. He earned to earn more. Moneymaking was a hobby for him and as they say, when your passion became your work ,you really did well for yourself .The Haridwar home, where he grew up, was no longer comfortable for him ; the bylanes that led to the old house were too chaotic for his sensitive eardrums and even a whiff of the cheap ,fried savouries on the streets made him nauseous. His awkwardness with his own kin was surprising for someone like me, who longed for fun times with siblings and cousins.
Of late, he saw no reason to attend the family events in Haridwar that we were expected at and therefore, the hometown, which was not far away, seemed to be a distant, forgotten world.
“And is the Masterchef contemplating a change of career to add some excitement to his life?” Dad cajoled as he entered the dining room, where I brooded over my coffee. I rolled up my eyes and opened my mouth to answer when Anya appeared from nowhere and quipped “Ya, Dad, Anish has been considering harpooning, so that way he could catch whales himself before cooking them for an exotic seafood platter. Exciting, huh?” Dad exited without a word. I turned around gratefully towards Anya only to find her gone, faster than she appeared.
I was aware Dad wasn’t happy about my choice of profession. We hadn’t had any arguments though. My father loved playing the cool dad, cleverly concealing his disappointment. Whether he did it for fear of losing me or out of peer pressure from the elite circles he mingled in, was anybody’s guess. He was a good actor and lived a synthetic, superfluous story where any sort of weakness or meagreness was unacceptable.
And that is why I saw no point mentioning my night visions or ‘the face’ to him.
She was back. The face sadder than ever, glistening eyes, hands outstretched, lips quivering , saying something I failed to decipher. I woke up in a cold sweat that night. A deep ache engulfed my heart. My cheeks were moist and I realised I had been crying too. Getting up to sip some water, I recollected an incongruous addition to the visual. The Haridwar family home flashed across at the very end of my delusional ordeal. There it was, in all its pink glory, with the sprawling verandah and the revered Tulsi plant at the centre of the courtyard. Strange!
Three consecutive nights of the same torment compelled me to plan a trip to my ancestral home.
“Anish, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to celebrate your eighteenth birthday with us?” Mom wailed.
“Yes, Anish,” chided Anya . “We would have decorated the house with blue balloons, danced in Avengers’ costumes and Mom would have posted such delightful clicks on her Facebook page! You just stole her chance for a thousand likes. Not fair!”
Mom actually nodded, much to Anya’s amusement.
Trying to look apologetic, I made silly excuses about having a gala time with my schoolfriends and giving in to their demands of a camping trip at an unknown destination.
Anya stared at me in disbelief, while my mother grudgingly accepted my case.
It was good to have a gullible mother. She adored me and would still be rocking me in her arms if I let her have her way. Much to her dismay, I rejected the mollycoddling quite early on, partly because I was claustrophobic, and partly because I was conscious of my sister’s deprived, disapproving glances whenever Mom fussed over me.
Mom had always been openly partial to me. She saw nothing wrong with that.
Inspite of a B.Ed degree, she never pursued teaching after marriage . A couple of years after Anya’s birth, Mom suffered a myriad of health issues which kept her confined to her room in the Haridwar family home. After my birth, we shifted to Gurgaon. The mother I grew up with, when not obsessing about me, would be shopping, partying, or ill. Her bedside table was adorned with innumerable bottles of all colours and shapes very similar to the countless pouting selfies of her friends in the gallery of her latest mobile phone. I yearned to know the woman she was before marriage, so that I could respect her choices. But talking about the past didn’t come easily to her, triggering a headache or a mild asthmatic attack, and so, I gave up on that some time back.
Sharing my worries with Mom had always sparked such an overreaction, that telling her of my five year old predicament was certainly not an option.
“You hate celebrating your birthdays! You end up crying like a baby every-time,” snapped Anya, barging into my room, as I packed my things into a rucksack.
“I do”. I shrugged. “That’s why I am running away!”
“Ah, so, no friends?” She questioned with raised eyebrows.
Amused at this rare display of interest in my actions by my sister, I paused, feeling tempted to tell her about my dilemma.
“Just me.” I replied, resisting the urge and walked away before anything hindered my mission.
I boarded the bus to Haridwar without notifying anyone.
The holy city, bustling with tourists and sages, welcomed me as warmly as ever. Stopping to soak in the view of the placid Ganga flanked by its vibrant ghats, I soon entered the congested gullies leading to our family home.
His afternoon siesta rudely interrupted by the bell, a dazed Shambhu Kaka took some time recognizing me. Hard-working and faithful, the aged caretaker had witnessed all the highs and lows faced by the extended family over the years. He updated me about my uncle and family being out on a vacation, and wondered why I hadn’t bothered to inform. Feigning exhaustion, I retired into the guest room.
Clueless about my next move, and very restless, I strolled towards the ghats in the evening. The rows of luminescent diyas and their reflection in the calm waters always fascinated me. I bowed to the divine asking for guidance.
Walking back, I hit upon an idea.
While Shambhu Kaka prepared dinner, I rummaged through my uncle’s hidden collection of liquor and laid it out invitingly at the table. With an indulgent smile, I persuaded Kaka to take a few pegs as I ate.
We chatted, reminiscing the past. Full of praises for my grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, it took patience and tact on my part to steer him towards any skeletons in the cupboard.
Just when I was about to give up, he mentioned something about my mother’s prolonged depression at not being able to bear a male child after Anya was born. He grumbled about the discontent among the elders and my father. He talked about playing with little Anya to distract her from unpleasant arguments. I was distraught to learn that my sister had stopped eating, feeling unloved and unwanted. Then, he named a doctor, who had in some way, been responsible for my miraculous birth. He blessed the saviour and then beaming at me, blessed me. But all of a sudden, his face darkened, and he shook his head vigorously, in remorse. Mumbling incoherently, much to my dismay, he dozed off.
I looked up the name and address of the doctor. Following an unrestful night, I made my way to Dehradun at the crack of dawn.
Dehradun, unlike Haridwar doesn’t boast of piety and is a blend of old world charm and modern hangouts rolled in with the country’s best schools .Never had I imagined as a preteen gallivanting with cousins on Rajpur road, that the future would see me investigating my birth story at a clinic in the vicinity of the same area.
Doubtful of my intentions, the clinic staff interrogated me thoroughly, before ushering me into the concerned doctor’s chambers. I introduced myself and politely thanked her for my life. She relaxed and then went on to triumphantly declare how I was one of the earliest successful surrogate babies born in her medical career.
I bit my tongue.
A revelation it was ! Perplexed about the secrecy woven around the whole thing by my parents, I took the records she handed over to me. Dismissing an uneasy feeling, I concluded that surrogacy would not have been an accepted way of building a family eighteen years back, as it is today, forcing them to keep it confidential.
Leafing through the papers, I found my birth certificate, exactly like the one I had in my file back home. Another document had the consent for surrogacy carrying my parents’ signatures and a faint thumb impression, belonging to the woman who had hosted me for nine months. I closed my eyes and expressed my gratitude to her.
It was then that it caught my eye. I almost fell off my chair trying to comprehend the contents of a third document. The room spun, as I read and reread the words.
All of a sudden, everything made sense.
A short call to an inconsolable Shambhu Kaka confirmed my discovery. And I was on my way to where this journey of divulgence had begun.
Mussoorie beckoned, resplendent with starry lights even as the winding uphill road seemed never-ending. My heart beating frantically, I jostled through crowds of merrymaking vacationers on the Mall road to reach the bakery where the unexpected rendezvous occurred a lustrum back. At the counter, I inquired about her, describing the face that I knew so well by now. Between deafening demands for chocolate eclairs and banoffee pies, the manager communicated that the bakery had never had underage employees but kids from a nearby orphanage often came in to learn baking as part of their life-skills programme.
The orphanage in-charge, as flummoxed as me, was kind enough to accommodate me for the night. Unable to sleep, I called Anya and confided in her. The silent tears we both shed together, though miles apart, were more comforting than any heartfelt conversation.
The next morning saw me amidst much brouhaha around the eighteenth birthday celebrations of a girl; a girl whose sad face and melancholic eyes pierced my heart, just the way they had been doing since I first saw her .I walked over to my estranged twin sister, Anamika and told her gently, “It’s my eighteenth birthday too. I feel what you feel .Let’s celebrate together, today and always !”
I didn’t go abroad to pursue the fancy course. Anamika and I have opened our own café in the outskirts of Mussoorie. We bond over recipes, dishing out delicacies and catching up on all that we missed. Anamika continues to volunteer at the orphanage which was her home for eighteen years.
Anya always knew the truth. Her paintings spoke of the injustice. A recent exhibition got her widespread acclaim and a good amount of money, that she benevolently lent to her poor siblings. She hopes to join us soon and add colours to her canvas.
Mom and Dad are now eager to accept the daughter they selfishly abandoned. They quote everything from societal pressure to the secrecy of surrogacy, to their unpreparedness for three children at that time. Anamika is indifferent. But I have not forgiven them. I can not forget how their heartless decisions affected both my sisters. Anamika and I bonded long before I met the rest of my kin and our parents failed to respect that.
Oh, and if you ever visit Mussoorie and hear about a tiny quaint chalet off the road serving gourmet food, run by a brother and sister duo with similar looking eyes, that’s us at KINDRED café. Do drop in!
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