“Mala! Malaaa! Come here…..in the storeroom! “
Mala was in the process of bringing a bowl of rice from the kitchen when she heard the summons. She carefully placed the hot bowl on the dining table and shouted back, “Coming Maji!”
The storeroom was located at the back of the house. Mala paused at the door and asked, ‘’What is it Maji ?”
Shobha was hunched over an iron trunk. On hearing the maid servant’s voice, the old lady straightened and turned around.
“What took you so long? Come here and help me with this trunk.”
Though small, the storeroom was loaded with various items. Mala made her way inside and pulled the trunk down. ” Oh God, Maji! It’s so heavy. Is it filled with stones or what?” she asked while wiping her forehead with the end of her saree.
Shobha lovingly ran her wrinkled fingers over it and smiled. ” Arey, it’s your late Babuji’s trunk. In those days, we didn’t have suitcases. We used to keep all our things in these trunks. It contains all his belongings.”
As Shobha opened the trunk, Mala peeked inside. There was a worn-out coat, a kurta, a shawl, few books, an old album and various small items like a faded cigarette case, an ink pen, etc. Disinterested, she turned to leave.
” Maji, I have kept your lunch on the table. I’ll be back again in the evening.”
Shobha was happily engrossed with the contents of the trunk and merely nodded her head in dismissal. She was rummaging through the items when she came across a small red diary. Ah! Sudhir’s personal diary, she remembered. The one which he never let anyone look into; not even Shobha. Many years had passed since his death but Shobha had never touched the diary. Or it would be more precise to say that she had never felt the need.
Today, however, she felt reckless and curious. Like a small child, Shobha rubbed her hands with glee and started flipping through the pages. To her chagrin, she found that the diary contained nothing but the date and time of some memorable family occasions, milestones of their kids, their achievements, family tragedy, etc. In short, nothing that Shobha wasn’t already aware of. She sighed disappointedly and was about to shut the diary when her eyes fell on a Rs.10 note pasted securely on one of the pages. The note looked faded but it had something written on it. Now that’s interesting, thought Shobha and quickly put on her reading glass. She peered down closely at it. An address was written across the note in her husband’s handwriting.
Immediately, her curiosity was piqued. ‘An address! Whose address?’ she frowned. She again went back to the diary, this time carefully going over each and every page. Alas! It proved futile. Exasperated, she threw away the diary and began thinking hard.
Shobha was sure that the address was important. Very important! Or else, why would Sudhir paste it in his personal diary? A sense of foreboding gripped her. ‘Oh! What nonsense.’ She chided herself. “Why am I feeling this way? I am above 65 and well past the age of any secret. Moreover, Sudhir never hid anything from me.’
Or did he?? The thought refused to go away. As the day progressed, her restlessness increased. Finally, she decided to put her mind at rest. She got dressed and went looking for a taxi. The pin code given in the address was the same as that of her own city. However, she wasn’t sure if the address existed.
A taxi pulled up beside her. With much trepidation, she asked the taxi driver about the address, half fearing that the man would laugh her off. But to her pleasant surprise, the man did no such thing.
He asked her to get in. Shobha seated herself and asked him, ” How far is it ?”
” Depends on the traffic, Maji. Shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
For the first time in her life, Shobha didn’t know where she was going. She had no inkling about her destination. She felt nervous as well as excited. As she looked out of the window, she thought about what her children would say if they came to know about her adventure. Moreover, what was she expecting to find? She and Sudhir had a blissful conjugal life. But what if he had someone else in his life?
The taxi came to a screeching halt bringing Shobha out of her reverie. A red signal! She sighed wearily and closed her eyes. Just then, a loud clap pierced her ears making her jump with fright. A garishly made-up face appeared at the window, ” Maji!”
Shobha looked up surprised. The eunuch smiled at her and deftly slipped one hand through the open window. He then said, ” May God bless you and keep you in the pink of health.”
Shobha felt irritated at this intrusion and scowled at ‘her’. The eunuch however kept on pestering her. Thoroughly annoyed, Shobha reached for the window. As she hastily started rolling it up, the sharp edge hit the eunuch’s arm and ‘she’ screamed with pain. The red signal switched to green and the taxi started. ‘She’ quickly took her hand out and looked at Shobha with pain and derision written all over her face.
Shobha turned her head away and muttered, ‘Nuisance!’
Soon she reached her destination and forgot about the whole incident. Stepping down, Shobha stared at the shabby building in front of her. It looked to be in dire need of some repair and a fresh coat of paint. She looked upwards to read the name of the building. Some of the letters were missing but still, she could make it out.
Shobha gasped. An orphanage! What did Sudhir want in an orphanage? She felt more confused than ever. Nevertheless, she decided to go in. A watchman was sitting at the entrance. He looked at her queerly. She read out the address and asked if she had come to the correct place. He nodded mutely.
Shobha felt encouraged and said, ” I want to meet the person in charge here. “
She had expected some kind of resistance but the man showed her the way. The interior of the orphanage was much worse than the exterior. She could hear the loud voices of children in the background. The room she was ushered into was small and had only a desk with a computer on it. A middle-aged man was seated behind the desk and he asked her to take a seat.
” Hello, mam. I am Raghu Das. How may I help you?”
Shobha took a deep breath and narrated everything. Raghu stared at her for some time and said, “There are two reasons why people come here. Either to adopt children or to give them up. And I am not allowed to disclose the information unless….” He deliberately trailed off and looked at her pointedly.
Shobha was well versed with the ways of the world. She had been living alone since her husband died and her children left home to settle abroad. Raghu’s gesture meant only one thing. She took out some crisp notes from her purse and handed it over to him. Raghu smiled at her and continued, “Let’s begin with the adoption records first. Let me warn you that it will take some time since you don’t have any date with you.”
Shobha nodded and sat still. She refused to think about anything and started chanting her mantras to calm herself. It was quite sometime before Raghu spoke. He shook his head and said, “I didn’t find his name in the adoption list.”
Shobha heaved a sigh of relief and silently thanked God.
“Let me check the next list where we keep records of the children who have been given up.’’Raghu again went back to his computer.
This time however Shobha was confident that Sudhir’s name would not feature in the list. After all, there was no reason. They had a son and daughter and Sudhir positively doted on them. She started to relax when she heard Raghu exclaim.
“Yes. It’s here. Mr Sudhir Agarwal had come to give up a baby on November 1, 1977.”
Shobha gaped at him with an open mouth. No! It couldn’t be. She said slowly, ” 1st November 1977 !? How can that be? They told me it’s a stillborn baby…They didn’t even let me see him. He was my firstborn! ” Shobha started sobbing. Oh, Sudhir! How could you? She felt betrayed.
Suddenly her eyes lit up and she said, ” That means my child is not dead. He is alive! Oh please tell me he is!” Shobha stood up excited. ” Is he here?”
Raghu shifted uncomfortably in his chair. ” Umm… No..He isn’t here.” He then stood up too and said in a firm voice, “There is nothing else I can do for you. I am sorry .”
Shobha felt dejected and lost. To come this far and lose! No, she needed to find out the entire truth. She came outside and saw the watchman sitting on a chair listening to the radio. She approached him. He shook his head vehemently.
“How can I give you information about something that happened nearly 40 years back? Heck, I was not even working then.”
Disappointed, Shobha turned to leave.
“But…” The watchman frowned in consternation. Shobha swirled around and looked at him expectantly.
“I have heard that there was some scandal many years back. The man who worked as a sweeper here was involved in some mischief.”
” What kind of mischief? What’s his name? Where can I find him?”
” Hold on. I don’t know the details, only that the management had dismissed him right after the incident. As to his name, I think..hmm…..Shankar or something like that. I am not very sure. Heard that he lives at the nearby slum.”
Shobha didn’t waste a second. The slum was not far and she dragged her arthritic limbs towards the narrow alleys. A large row of shanties greeted her and she despaired.’ Please God,’ she prayed,’ Please help me find the man.’ After all, he was her last hope.
She was thinking of inquiring about Shankar when a loud brawl reached her ears. Two men were involved in a bitter quarrel in front of a liquor shop. A large man was holding an old, dishevelled man by his collar and shouting angrily, ” You old leech! How many times have I asked you not to come to my shop without money? Get out of here or else I shall call the police. Do you hear me, Shankar? “
Shobha was startled. Was this the same man that she was looking for? Shobha trotted towards him. The shopkeeper stomped away angrily leaving Shankar to fend for himself. As she came near, she had to hold her nose with the pallu of her saree. The man reeked of alcohol. She steadied him on his feet and came directly to the point.
“Have you worked at the orphanage over there ?” Shobha pointed across the road.
Shankar looked at her through half-open eyes. She looks respectful, he thought and replied truthfully, “Yes, I have. But that was long ago. Why do you ask?”
Shobha couldn’t contain her excitement. She narrated everything and asked for his help.
Shankar was fully awake now. He looked at her with amazement and said, “You say you are the mother! Why have you come now? Why do you want to know? Let the past remain in the past.”
But Shobha was at the end of her tethers. She persisted, “No, no! I can’t let it be. It has become my present now. Probably, my future too! ‘
The old man eyed her purse and asked, “How much do you have there?”
Without a word, Shobha handed him a two thousand rupees note and commanded, “Now, tell me everything you know.”
He shoved the money inside his pocket and replied, “I remember your husband. I met him at Sanjeevani Hospital.”
Shobha was awestruck. “Sanjeevani? That’s where I gave birth to my first child!”
Shankar nodded. “Yes. I was doing multiple jobs at that time. I worked as a sweeper at both the hospital and the orphanage. On that particular night, I found your husband outside the delivery room. I was moping the floor when I saw him pacing up and down the long corridor. I approached him. Initially, he was reluctant. But then he said that he didn’t want the child and needed to dispose of off the baby before you gained consciousness.”
Shobha was puzzled. Why didn’t Sudhir want the child? As far as she knew, her husband had been a loving and doting father to their kids, especially their daughter.
Shankar continued, “It was then that I told him about this orphanage. He took out a ten rupees note and wrote down the address on it.”
Shobha’s mind was whirling like a tornado. Her head ached with unanswered questions… She took a deep breath and asked, “Do you know why he didn’t want the baby? Did he have some…some kind of deformity?”
For the first time, the old man looked at her in the eye and said with despise, ” Who would want a baby who is neither a male or a female, huh? “
It took one full minute for the words to register in her otherwise numb mind. She felt cold and started shivering. Shankar was not finished yet. He laughed maliciously at her and said, “You will never find him! He is lost in this big, bad world. A group of eunuchs came and took him away.” Thumping his chest, he said, ” I…yes, yes. It was I who informed them. I have sent him away. To a place where he really belongs!”
Shobha felt as if someone had sucked out the life from her body. She was unable to breathe. As she desperately gasped for air, an image of the same eunuch whom she had hurt earlier, now popped up in front of her eyes.
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