Lara lay on the bed, eyes closed, barely breathing. She was covered with a faded pink, well worn ‘rajai’, the same one she had hunted for, in Jaipur, many years ago. It lay softly against her withered body, caressing her cheek with infinite love and tenderness. After all, hadn’t she too taken good care of it? Every Sunday morning, the rajai was soaked in lukewarm water, handwashed and sun-dried till all the fibres in it had liquefied to a soft gentleness. Now, in the twilight hours of her life, the rajai clung to her like a baby to its mother’s bosom.
All around her, there was a flurry of activity. The entire family, including her granddaughter had arrived to be with Lara. They had made a pact. There was to be no crying. They all took turns to sit by her side, regaling her with stories from the past. It was a celebration of the meaningful life Lara had lived. Ankit yelled, “Niki! Have you ordered the ice cream?” Niki laughed and patted her Dad’s hand reassuringly. “Chill, Dad. It’s all done. Go, sit with Mom.”
Ankit gave a wry smile, kissed the top of Niki’s head and sat by his wife’s side. Today Niki had draped her in her favourite colour, yellow. The red bindi on her forehead stood out against the pallor of her cheeks.
Ankit bent down and whispered in her ear, “Darling, Gauri is coming! Can you hear me, Lara? Gauri is coming home.” Lara lay impassive, eyes shut. Ankit sighed, holding her hand lovingly in his. The memories came rushing in.
Dr. Lara Singh was having a really tough day even by her standards. As if a waiting room full of patients and a woman in labour were not enough, there was the constantly vexing issue of staff problems. To further complicate matters, the weather was behaving erratically. Just this morning, there had been a bout of unseasonal November rain. The heavens had opened up while Dr. Lara was leaving home. “I wonder,” she thought “what does this portend?” Little did she guess what the day had in store for her! In the midst of this chaos, Lara cut a fine, elegant picture. Her serene, beautiful face and crisp, cotton saree worked its magic on people around her. Voices softened, faces smiled and moods mellowed. Suddenly, the phone rang. Her receptionist transferred the line saying, “Madam, it’s Meenal from the NGO.” Lara had been associated with this NGO for many years now. She delivered unwed mothers, who then, gave up their children for adoption to the NGO. Every time that happened, Lara’s heart would break for the mothers. She would always wonder how painful it must be to give up a child you had nurtured in your body for nine months. But it was a pragmatic solution. The young girls got a second lease of life and the babies were assured of a home. She picked up the receiver and replied, “Yes, Meenal. How can I be of help?” Meenal’s voice was a bit hesitant and worried. She said, “Madam, I have a favour to ask of you. You can refuse if you like. There is this infant girl. She is very weak, barely weighs three pounds and needs special care. If we take her to the children’s home, she may not survive. Can you take care of her till she recovers? Please! Just for a few days.” Lara was dumbfounded. “But, why here? In a hospital! Who is this baby?” she asked.
Meenal, with a catch in her voice, narrated the story.
Just one week ago, a long-distance train pulled up at VT station. The cleaners found a small bundle wrapped up in newspapers under the berth. They handed over the suspicious looking packet to the railway police. On opening it, they found a baby! Barely alive, covered in slime with umbilical cord still attached. She appeared to be barely three days old. They rushed her to a nearby hospital. When asked to fill the admission form, the female constable wrote ‘Gauri’, her own daughter’s name, under the patient name column. Baby Gauri was cleaned, fed and cared for by the doctors and nurses till her shrivelled skin came back to life and she started to look more human than animal. But what next? Putting her in the children’s home would negate all the efforts that had ensured her survival. It was a pathetic, dismal scenario. That’s when Meenal thought of Dr. Lara and made the call. She had known Lara for many years now and had always admired her for her empathy and warmth.
Dr. Lara couldn’t refuse. How could she? She was the sort of person who cuddled all the babies born in her hospital and whispered prayers in their ears at birth. But this was a big deal! She conferred with her hospital nurses. They immediately agreed and so did her husband, Ankit and daughter, Niki. Nevertheless, she insisted on one condition; Baby Gauri was to be taken away as soon as she started thriving. After all, this was a busy hospital, not an orphanage, wasn’t it! A relieved Meenal readily agreed. She said, “Yes, Doctor. Let her stay in the hospital just for a month. We will send her to a foster family later.”
So, the very same day, Gauri arrived, huddled in Meenal’s arms under an umbrella in oversized ‘hand me down’ clothes. A squealing, skinny bundle of bones, big eyes and a tuft of hair. What she lacked in size, she made up in volume. Her loud, demanding cries brought the entire hospital staff to her side. One look at her and Lara’s buried maternal instincts kicked in. Her days started to begin and end with Gauri.
When her own daughter, Niki was born, Lara was at the threshold of her career. She had just started her hospital. There were loans to be paid. She had spent more time at the hospital than at home with her daughter. But now, that was all water under the bridge. Niki was 15 years old now and equally fascinated by this sweet addition to their lives. Two months later, Gauri was a healthy seven pounder. It was time to send her away to a foster family. All arrangements were made to shift Gauri out of the hospital the next day. Lara couldn’t sleep that night. She held the baby close to her side, ruffling her curls and admiring the soft curve of her cheek as she slept. Who would have imagined that the tiny piece of scrap found abandoned in a train compartment could have turned into a cuddly, dimpled bundle of joy.
Lara made a decision. The next morning, she called the NGO and began formalities to register herself as a foster parent for Gauri. The adoption proceedings were delayed because there was no record of her parentage. So, Dr. Lara became a mother at the age of fifty, for a period of eight months. Eight months of caring, loving, playing and cuddling an adorable baby who squealed with delight every time Lara picked her up. Gauri became the darling of the hospital. Even patients and their families loved her. There were so many desperate to adopt her that Lara invented a story about Gauri. She told everyone that Gauri was a dear friend’s child who was staying with her because her mother was ill. The staff quarrels miraculously vanished under the influence of a gurgling, cooing baby who filled the air with fun and joy. The only fights were about who did Gauri love the most! But all knew in their hearts that Gauri loved Dr. Lara the most. It was Lara who could quieten her with her soft, crooning voice. It was Lara who nursed her through a terrible cold. It was Lara who calmed her after her shots and it was Lara who Gauri reached for, with open arms and dimpled smile. Days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months.
Finally, the adoption papers came through. She was to be adopted by a young couple staying in Mumbai itself. Lara had met them and was really glad that Gauri was going to the perfect family. She had toyed with the idea of adopting Gauri herself, but her age was a deterrent. On the day Gauri was to go, Lara stayed at home. She knew that if she held that soft body once more, she would never be able to let go. She whispered, “Godspeed, my love. I will never forget you,” as she watched Ankit and Niki leave with Gauri for her new home. The story didn’t end there. Gauri was inconsolable. She cried and cried in her new home. She stopped eating and drinking. Her adoptive parents had filled the house with toys. But nothing could pacify her. In frustration and panic, the new parents contacted Lara. “Dr. Lara,” they implored, “Please tell us what to do? We are miserable seeing our baby so sad. Do you think we should send her back to you? Obviously, she misses you.”
Lara heard this with tears rolling down her cheeks. With firm resolve, she took charge and sent them recordings of her voice reciting nursery rhymes, songs and foolish baby talk. This worked like magic. Gauri’s face lit up on hearing that dear, familiar voice. The crying stopped and, in a few days, all was well. The next few weeks, Lara threw herself with a frenzy into work, work and more work till at last, one fine day, her heart no longer felt as if two dimpled hands were squeezing it till, she couldn’t breathe anymore. For a few years thereafter, she received messages from the adoptive family till those too, petered out.
Now, Lara was critically ill. The doctors had allowed the family to bring her home. Somehow, Ankit was restless as if he had missed out on something important. It was only while going through old photographs that a memory struck him. On every ninth of November, which was the day Gauri had come into their lives, since the last 15 years, Lara would sit with these pictures and caress every one of them with wet eyes and a smile on her lips. Niki and she would remember those days when a sweet, little baby had caught their fingers with small hands and ruled their lives with her cry and laugh. ” How could I forget Gauri?” cried Ankit. “I have to bring her home. Lara needs to meet her one last time.” Niki burst into tears and said, “That’s not fair, Dad. What if she is unaware of her adoption? After all, she must be about 15 years old now. Maybe her parents haven’t told her.”
In desperation, Ankit retrieved the phone number from Lara’s phone. With much trepidation, he made the call. “Hello,” said Ankit, “Am I speaking to Gauri’s father?” “Yes,” said the person on the other line. With an aching voice, Ankit told him about Lara’s illness and asked, “Does Gauri know about her adoption and foster family?” There was a minute’s silence on the other end. Finally, Gauri’s father answered, “No. She doesn’t know. But today we will sit with her and tell her. Don’t worry. How can we forget the selfless angel who saved our daughter’s life? I will bring her to meet Lara tomorrow. That’s a promise.” Ankit sank to his knees in joy and relief.
Next morning, the doorbell rang. Niki opened the door. She and Gauri looked at each other and hugged with tears of sorrow and joy intermingled on their cheeks. Gauri went straight to Lara’s side and held her frail hand to her cheeks, kissing it and saying “Thank you ” over and over again.
Holding her mother’s other hand, Niki whispered, “Look, Mom. It’s Gauri! See what a beautiful girl she has turned out to be. She is here to meet you, Mom.” Lara’s eyelids fluttered, her fingers moved gently against Gauri’s cheeks and she fell into a peaceful sleep.
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