Location- In one of the seven realms
When Anil Kumar became a mere statistic to the rising road accidents in India, he was ill-prepared to die. Moreover, he was just a sprightly sixty when he did. He was not a well-read man; hence he never sought answers to either his present life on Earth or to his afterlife. Like most laymen, he knew that the souls leave the physical body, and he always thought that they would be amidst their loved ones, just like how Bollywood movies showcased the souls of the dead. The concept of heaven and hell was beyond his mean understanding. He was a simple, ignorant man who never gave much thought to anything beyond his daughter.
So, when Anil Sharma found himself in the presence of Chitragupt, there was a laundry list on the debit side, and there was little by way of credit. He was taken aback. He, who had patted himself consistently and frequently for sacrificing his life for the sake of his daughter and was proud of his martyrdom, was made to face some home truths. Chitragupt, who prides himself on keeping an incredibly meticulous record of all life forms so that the fate of their soul can be easily determined was far from amused when an explanation was sought. He was unapologetically harsh and vehement in laying the cards on the table and bringing the same to the notice of Anil Sharma. Every deed, including the way he played effectively to the sentiments of Neha, was recorded. Put that way, Anil Sharma’s life was really nothing to write home about.
Feeling tearful and low, he asked, “Can I correct this wrong? Is there any way of me setting right the wrong?”
“How?” Chtiragupt barked while glaring at Anil Sharma. The fact that he was made to show the book of records still rankled, and he chaffed at the slight.
“I don’t know. I am frightfully sorry. I am not a man of letters; hence, I was really unaware of what I was doing while down there.” Surprisingly, Anil Sharma found that his vocabulary and language were much better here than it ever was on Earth.
“Well, there is one way. We did send Karna down to Earth to set right his wrong.” Looking at the lost look on Anil’s face, Chitragupt sighed at the ignorance of mortals on the myths and mythology that bind generations of living together. He was aghast at such lack of knowledge among people who were considered to be the most intelligent of living forms. How could one live life without having any thirst for information? “When the legendary donor Karna died in the epic Mahabharata war, his soul transcended to heaven, where he was offered gold and jewels. However, Karna needed real food to eat and asked Indra, the lord of heaven, the reason for serving gold instead of three square meals a day. Indra told Karna that he had donated gold all his life but had never donated food to his ancestors during the Shraddha period. Karna said that since he was unaware of his ancestors, he never donated anything in their memory. To make amends, Karna was permitted to return to Earth for 15 days to perform Shraddha and donate food and water in their memory. This period is now known as Pitru Paksha. You, of course, served food to your ancestors without seeking answers,” Chitragupt scoffed.
“So, will I get another chance?” Anil brushed aside the extra information offered him and came straight to the point.
“No, you wouldn’t, for you had been remarkably self-obsessed this given birth. Moreover, it’s too late as the mistake cannot be rectified. So, I really can’t see how you can right the wrong.”
“But, I can try, right? I can apologize to Neha.”
“What do you hope to gain?” Looking at his petulant expression, Chitragupt sighed again. He knew what he had to do as he lifted the phone.
Meanwhile, “Tring…..tring,” went the phone. The silence of the empty house was so deafening that the muted ring of the telephone startled Neha to such an extent that she jumped a mile high only to hit her head against a protruding shelf over which knick-knacks were placed. A stupid location to place a couch but …
Still rubbing her head, she reached for the phone on the cradle. The phone hardly rang; mostly, she received calls on her cell phone, which was only work-related. It was then surprising that her landline was trilling, and she removed the instrument and had to clear her throat, which was dry due to lack of use. “Hello,” she said uncertainly, wondering who would call her. She was a loner, a woman who found herself married to her job and taking care of her home. “Hello,” she said a little louder. In the silence of the house, it felt as if she were shouting into the receiver.
There was silence from the other end broken by static and then a familiar clearing of the throat.
“Dad,” she said uncertainly. “Dad, speak please,” she implored. She silenced the rational part of her that said that this was not possible. It must be a crank call. But, her emotional side that was still raw with pain won, and she pleaded with a half sob, “Dad, speak up.”
“Neha baby!” the caller said. She felt her eyes well up. She, at thirty-five, would always be a baby to her father, the only one who could make her feel, Oh…so warm and fuzzy. “Dad,” she said again, “Please, speak up, speak up. I can’t hear you,” she sobbed.
“Baby, I have not been fair to you…wait,” he ordered peremptorily before she voiced her objection. She suddenly realized that her father was always the stronger one, and she was trained to do his bidding even if her mind said the contrary. Even the placing of the couch was his idea.
“Wait,” his tone now placating, “listen. I have not been fair to you…I have been instrumental in…” a static that broke the conversation. “Neha beti, I am sorry, sorry for all the mistakes.”
Neha sat shell-shocked at the sound of the sobs at the other end but could not get in the words that she had lost out on hearing essential words. It seemed like an eternity before the horrifying sound petered out, and there was a hiccup before she heard his voice again, but this time, it was addressed to someone else. “I am doing it,” he seems to be repeating. “I am setting right the wrong. Don’t make it more difficult for me. I am sorry, sorry.” Repeating the same apology like a cracked gramophone, her father’s voice grew faint, and there was silence. Neha stood with the phone still in her hands….there was once again the silence of the empty house though she could feel the apology ringing in her ears, and suddenly she realized that he didn’t have to say anymore. She knew what her father meant. A small part of her knew it all along, but she chose to ignore the warning. The line was not disconnected, and she could again hear a peculiar static. Rage filled her. Little comprehending what was happening, she screamed into the instrument, “don’t go away, without letting me know why? I loved you and thought that the only unconditional love I received was from you; damn, damn you, damn you to hell!” She was hurting, yet she did not understand… how could her father call her? He continued in bursts and starts all that he had done. His final words, “I have to repay my debt, I am told, hence…” made her wince, for she suddenly realized her father for what he actually was. But yet, she wondered how he could reach her? She had cremated him just a week back! She could have easily changed the couch the way she wanted to, she thought irrelevantly, but she did not do so because she felt it was a sacrilege. She allowed the stupid couch to be where it was because she always thought he would still be hovering around, just like he said her mother was.
Anil Kumar heard his daughter’s agony but did not know what to answer. He could see into the living room of the house with all the trappings that material wealth could fetch. He saw her rearranging the living room. He tut-tutted his displeasure, and this did not miss the hawk-eyed Chtragupt. He condemned the man to another birth on the Earth. This time he would face many problems and he would frequently question, Why me? But then, that was the law of Karma. One has to pay back the sins of the previous birth.
Watching Neha crying and pushing the furniture around the lonely house, he felt bad. But then, her soul had to undertake this journey. It had to evolve with this lesson. It is challenging to make earthlings understand, but then this record-keeping was his job, and he did so meticulously.
Re-wind Seven years
“Neha, I think we both deserve another chance. We can try once again-live together and try it out. I think our relationship deserves that.” Saurabh had come seeking her out, post their office hours. When he broached the topic, they were at their favourite place for a cup of coffee. He looked at her, hoping she had seen through her father’s gimmick. Looking at the handsome man sitting opposite her, Neha was tempted. But then she realized that her father would go through all his tantrums again, and she owed him a lot. She asked Saurabh, “Can we move into my father’s house? Maybe, then he wouldn’t throw a fit.”
“No!” Then tempering his tone, he tried once again. “Neha, it is not home that your father is upset about. He is selfish, Neha. I don’t know if you understand that all he is looking for is his own happiness. Even now, I don’t mind if he comes to visit us or make his home with us, but I will not move into his house. Firstly, it involves lots of traveling; moreover, the house is a shrine for your mother. His love is abnormal. He uses his sacrifice as a sword over your head. He needs a life beyond you, and this symbiotic love is unhealthy.”
She had walked out, leaving her unfinished coffee, and Saurabh had sat through mourning their loss.
Rewind a decade
When Neha met Saurabh in her college, sparks flew between them, and the embers continued smoldering. Neha realized that her life with her father was just not enough, and it was only a matter of days before Neha told Saurabh, “My father was the most important man in my life till I met you. So please bear with me as I want both the important men in my life to like and respect each other.” Saurabh had beamed with pride. Little did he realize that it’s not always easy to fight the other man in your life, particularly when the other man is your wife’s father. Neither was he aware that for the first time in Anil Kumar’s life, Neha made a decision that did not involve him. Neha feeling shy to approach her father routed her request to marry Saurabh through her maternal aunt. Indian extended family can be useful; hence, with the blessing of her aunts and her uncles, she could override all the subtle doubts that her father had managed to plant in her mind regarding Saurabh. The older man could not digest that she preferred another man despite all his sacrifices. He felt cheated. He could not understand why they could not continue with the status quo of each being there for the other. Like most people of his generation and upbringing, sex was a taboo subject, and he had subjugated his urge once he lost his wife and felt that it was the ultimate sacrifice on his part for the sake of his daughter. Neither did it cross his mind that his daughter too would have her own physical urges, and marriage and physical love were the next natural step for two people in love.
The honeymoon period lasted for the couple for just six months, but for the father, it was the longest in his life. Having no other life other than Neha, he just did not know what to do with himself. It was just that the ‘lost puppy’ look was even more challenging to manage than the ‘real filmi kind of overt villainry’. Neha kept coming to her maternal home directly from the office and returning to her home with Saurabh, which was at the other end of the city. She and Saurabh tried their best to make her father rent out his own house and come and make a home with her and Saurabh. He refused, stating that the soul of his long-dead wife was with him in that house. The cracks in the marriage started appearing slowly but steadily because Neha was caught between her “father who had sacrificed a lot for her sake” and her husband who possessed to quote her father, “the typical attitude of the Indian male who expected his wife to forget her maternal house and be a slave and subjugate herself to all his pandering.” The dutiful Neha caught between her father, who was “always there for her,” and her new, fledging love for the man who came into her life “just yesterday.” Slowly and surely, the father of Neha won, and whenever there was a disagreement with Saurabh, she could not differentiate between her own words and those of her father’s. As Saurabh lashed out one day, “Even you, with your short-sightedness, would accept that our marriage is not going anywhere and that your father is not having your best interest in his mind.”
All too soon, they were separated due to irreconcilable differences. This time, Anil Kumar ensured that the divorce news was kept under wraps because it was “too unpalatable to the old-fashioned uncles and aunts.” Saurabh, as a parting gift, had lashed out at her father, “hope you can live with yourself knowing very well that you had been the reason for your daughter’s unhappiness. I can’t fight this parasitical love,” the derision in his voice further underlined the query “or should I call it parental self-centeredness?” He walked out before Neha could gouge his eyes.
Like most things, Anil Kumar brushed aside this too and continued to shower his love on Neha, and as far as he was concerned, that chapter of her life was truly behind her. He neither alluded to that chapter nor pondered too much on his role in breaking up his daughter’s marriage. If he heard Neha cry herself to sleep or have dark circles under her eyes the following day, he just ignored that part of her life.
Neha grew up and was in absolute awe of her father.
She studied well and grew up into one bright lass. Her love for her father was as unconditional as he was. She was so unlike a typical teenager. She rarely stepped out without his permission. She did not mind some good-natured ribbing from her friends. She knew that none could be a better well-wisher than her father and none as selfless as him. She rarely, if at all, gave him grief. She was close enough to her aunts and uncles, and her grandparents often regaled her with how her father had placed his life on hold for her sake.
There can be much that one could fault Anil Sharma, but none could fault his love for his newborn. He bought a house the year his little nanhi-munni Neha was born. He considered her his lucky charm, for his long-pending promotion came through the day she was born. As a fact of the matter, he must have been pacing the waiting room when the order must have come through.
When he lost his wife to the dreaded and undetected Cancer, he was just short of thirty, and Neha was merely five. Naturally, there was no dearth of alliances for his re-marriage brought forth by his various relatives, but he loved his baby girl, and he had heard enough of the ‘wicked step-mother’ stories and had refused to re-marry. He took help from his mother and other relatives for food and chores, but bringing up his angel was solely his responsibility. The highlight of his day was when he and his little girl cuddled under a blanket during the long winter evenings of Lucknow, and she regaled him with tales of her school and friends. Needless to say, this ultimate sacrifice of her father was a part of the family lore and the talk of the town. Such sacrifices are expected of a mother but rarely from a father. By and by, Anil Kumar too started feeling the happy glow of being such a martyr. And thus, the saga of father and daughter began.
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