Pragya was busy explaining her requirements to the carpenter. She had just shifted to a new house in the far suburbs of Mumbai. After a bitter divorce, she wanted to start over. And no better place than living closer to nature. Her work commute would be longer but she did not mind that.
“Madam, this old almirah is in a very good condition. Teak wood and no termites. We can use it to make some of the kitchen furniture.”
“Yes, alright. You can work in the backyard and I’ll adjust with a makeshift kitchen till then.” Pragya said.
She then started unpacking. She was mentally deciding what other things needed to be done to make the house a bit more livable.
The carpenter broke her reverie, “Madam, I found these papers from the bottom of this almirah. It had a secret compartment.” He handed the papers to her. Pragya kept them on the bed. She was too busy for anything else except the unboxing.
Later, in the quiet of the night, she came across those papers again. She studied them with curiosity and found that they were actually letters written at random intervals. The pages had yellowed and had a woody smell. She opened the first one. It was dated 13th January 1994.
You would have been 12 years old today. It has been a year since that fateful night. I curse myself every single day since then. We would have been cutting your favorite strawberry cake today. And now I don’t even know where you are. If you are even alive. But I’m still hoping for the best.
Okay, enough of sad things. Let me tell you something that will cheer you up. Saumil has got selected in his school football team. He was always good at kicking, first inside me and then you; when you would both fight like hooligans over the most trivial matters. He loved pulling your pigtails, if you remember. I have a picture of that in the album too.
Your dad is doing fine. He is coping by immersing himself in work. But, I know he’s still angry with me. I just hope he can forgive me. All I can do to express my feelings, is to write. And so, here I am. Writing to you.
Until we meet again,
Pragya was intrigued with this letter. Who was this lady? And what had happened to Keerti? She immediately took her phone and searched for any major events in 1993. And there was more than enough information available. ‘So something happened to Keerti during the 1992-93 Mumbai riots,’ Pragya thought. She looked for the next letter. The next one was dated 13th January 1996.
I hope you are fine. I cannot do anything more than that. Your dad and Saumil have given up on you. We have shifted to a new house very far from our previous one. Your dad says he cannot take it anymore. Your memories are too much to handle. He hardly talks to me unless it’s necessary. I miss you. A lot. Saumil is busy with his school, he’s in tenth standard now.
It would have been your 14th birthday today. You would have hit puberty. From a little girl to a woman. Oh Keerti! We shouldn’t have left home that day.
On the eve of 11th January, there were gunshots and screams from our neighboring colony. I panicked. Your dad was stuck in office and Saumil was at his friends place. I did not know what to do. The neighbors were planning to reach the station close by and go somewhere safe. So I took you and we went. But now I realize what a mistake that was! As we were about to reach the station, we were attacked. There was chaos. You got separated from me and then I just couldn’t find you. I searched everywhere. When the rioters left, I went again and with a hand on my heart, I looked for you amongst the injured and dead. And because you weren’t there, I hoped that you were alive. I still hope.
I am yet to get used to this new house. It is nice and big, has a backyard. All houses are connected by a garden. But it’s not the same without you. Please come back soon.
Pragya wiped the tears from her eyes. Keerti would have been her age today. She wanted to read the rest, but the growling in her stomach reminded her to have dinner.
Post dinner, she again resumed the perusal of the letters. She was so curious to know next. They were written yearly on Keerti’s birthday. Each letter expressed the mother’s anguish over her mistake and her changing dynamics with her husband and child. After quickly going through the rest, Pragya took the last letter. It was dated 13th January 2009.
I have some good news and bad. Saumil married his girlfriend and both of them migrated to USA for better opportunities. Your dad started talking to me again. We were at peace. But happiness doesn’t seem to last in my life for long, as he passed away soon after suffering a major heart attack.
The people in this society are very helpful though. They keep bringing new varieties of food to taste. They have made me join their laughter club every alternate day. A few ladies have invited me to join their kitty group. I don’t know if I will join though, because I hate gossiping. Saumil calls once a week. I have started to piece my life back slowly. And I’m trying to be happy. I hope you are alright too.
Until next time,
Pragya was curious to know what happened to this lady. She decided to call the agent and get the number of the previous owner the next morning.
Over the next few days, along with juggling work, Pragya tried to find the mother of Keerti. She asked her neighbours but no one seemed to know her. The house was shut for long and thereafter it was given on rent to different families. Until she bought it. Pragya was disappointed.
The following morning, Pragya came across an old lady walking in the garden.
“Excuse me, aunty?” The lady stopped. “I’m Pragya and I’m staying in that house,” She said pointing towards it. “Never seen you here, have you shifted recently?”
“Hello Pragya. I’m Vaishnavi. No no… we used to stay here since long. But now only my son and his family stay. We shifted to our village. We come once or twice a year.”
“Oh.” Pragya saw a ray of hope. “Aunty, do you know the previous owners of the house that I’ve bought?”
“Many people have stayed here. It was shut for long after Shakuntala left. Oh, you mean Shakuntala?”
“Shakuntala? Was she Keerti’s mother?” Pragya asked keeping her fingers crossed.
Pragya didn’t know what to say. But then it struck. “Sorry, not Keerti. Saumil’s mother?”
“Oh that naughty Saumil? Yes… He’s in America now, right? Are you his friend?” Aunty asked.
Pragya thought for a while and said, “Yeah, sort of. But I actually wanted to meet Shakuntala aunty. Do you know where she is?”
“Yes, she stays at an old age home. Saumil wanted to take her with him, but she simply refused. She did not want to leave this place. She used to keep saying she’s waiting for someone to return. We thought she had lost her mind. She was alright for a few years after her husband passed away, but then she became a recluse. Hardly talking and coming out. So Saumil decided to keep her in an old age home where she would be taken care of. He gave the house on rent for a few years, but then it was becoming too much of a hassle for him, so he finally decided to sell it. He transferred all the money in Shakuntala’s account for her expenses. She’s there since last 6 or 7 years, I think. I meet her whenever I’m here. I will go tomorrow, you want to come?”
Pragya instantly took up the offer and the next day, they went to meet Shakuntala. Pragya was feeling very anxious to meet her.
As soon as they entered the room where Shakuntala was staying, Vaishnavi said, “Shakuntala, my dear friend, look who’s come to meet you!”
Shakuntala looked at Pragya questioningly.
Pragya took a step forward and said, “I’m Pragya. I have recently shifted in the house where you used to stay earlier.”
Pragya continued, “Vaishnavi aunty, I wanted to talk to her in private, could you please excuse us for some time?”
“Sure. I’ll sit in the garden.”
“Shakuntala aunty,” Pragya removed the letters from the purse, “I found these in the almirah and I’ve read them all.”
Shakuntala started crying and hugged Pragya. Pragya let her weep and after a while, she said, “Aunty, do you have her picture? May be, just maybe I can do something to find her.”
Shakuntala perked up at that, “Really? Can you find Keerti for me? We tried a lot you know, police reports, even hired private investigators, but nothing.” She rummaged through her cupboard and gave a picture to Pragya.
Pragya looked at the ten year old girl smiling brightly at the camera. Very fair skin, blondish hair. “Aunty?” She questioned.
“Yes, she had albinism. She was born white, but slowly her skin started to darken, except her hair. I don’t even want to imagine what was done to her if she has not survived that night. But, I’m still hopeful. A mother’s instinct, you know.”
Overwhelmed, Pragya left without saying anything. She knew an albino woman working in her office, but her hair was dark brown. Could she be Keerti?
‘Stop being foolish! There are many women with albinism around.’ She thought.
Back in office, she spoke to Smita, the albino woman. “I am a member of a society where all of us affected by this, meet every month. It is like a support group. I can ask around.” Smita said.
“That would be wonderful,” Pragya thanked her.
A month passed. Pragya met Shakuntala every week and updated her about their search. A few days later, Smita contacted Pragya with some positive news.
“There’s a man who knows someone who was adopted when she was a child. May be she’s the one whom we are looking for?” Smita said.
Pragya met that woman in question and sighed in relief. She looked so similar to the picture that Shakuntala had given her, except that her hair was darker. “Keerti?” Pragya said.
“What happened that night of the riots?” Pragya got straight to the point.
Swara was shocked at this, “How do you know?”
Pragya quickly regaled her of the events in the last two months.
“So mom’s still alive? Oh God! After we got separated, I searched for her a lot. There was so much chaos and in the hustle bustle, I was pushed into a train by the crowd. I don’t remember where the train took me, but I was very scared, tired and hungry. I fell down from the train due to the rush and then I didn’t remember anything. I was put in an orphanage, given a new name. I used to get nightmares for a long time after that. A few years later, I was adopted. My new parents took me to Mumbai for a trip. The familiarity of the place made me remember everything. After that I frantically searched for my parents; they were no more staying at our old place. Then I assumed the worst and accepted my new life. I remembered my old name, but chose to go with Swara. Until you found me today.”
“It’s time for a reunion then,” Pragya smiled.
“I’m eager to meet my mother too.” An emotional Keerti hugged Pragya.
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