The rays of the morning sun entered the bedroom through a gap in the window curtains. They shone on Dadu’s sleeping face like a spotlight.
Dadu woke with a start. It was almost 8 o’clock. He turned to see an empty space beside him on the bed. She had left.
Dadu groaned. His head throbbed from the excesses of last night. He entered the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face, deciding not to worry about the time – no one asked the Vice President of the company why he was late.
A sudden wave of sound assailed him. He followed it to the kitchen window and looked out at the sprawling school playground. It was morning assembly time.
Must the children scream out their prayers, he thought.
Dadu hated children. Yet, his official accommodation was right next to a school. The huge girls’ school was located at the dead end of a lane, flanked by 10 standalone houses on one side and a public garden on the other. Dadu’s house was the tenth. The front gate of the school was next to his own and the playground at the back, opposite the kitchen.
Fortunately for Dadu, it was a day school that began at 8 o’clock, well after he left for work. It ended at 4 o’clock, much before he returned home.
Today’s just not my day, he thought, munching on a sandwich as he shut the kitchen door to diminish the noise. For this reason alone, he resolved not to be late again.
Dadu Vishe was born in Shirgaon, a tiny village nearly 150 kms from his present residence in uptown Mumbai. He was the youngest of six siblings. His family depended on agriculture and dairy activities for sustenance. The eldest son and the four daughters stuck to the family tradition of a basic education in the village school and early marriage. While the girls were settled in nearby villages, the elder brother lived in Shirgaon with their parents.
Dadu was a pampered but intelligent child. After winning a scholarship, he graduated from a college in a nearby town. Another scholarship sent him to Mumbai where he completed his MBA.
Thus, at the age of 24, he landed a plum post in a prestigious company. Three years and several jobs later, he was now Vice President in a multinational organisation, with all the comforts he’d always dreamed of.
His years in Mumbai had transformed him from a simple villager to a sauve, sophisticated young man. His tall, lean frame, coupled with a clean shaven face, crooked smile and crewcut hair charmed many girls and he revelled in the knowledge that he was irresistible to them.
But success had its pitfalls. Dadu transformed from within, too. He started despising his rural background. He also hated his old-fashioned name. He knew his family would never come to Mumbai and he visited them only once a year.
His parents were unhappy with this change. So they used the great Indian formula that supposedly domesticated a person gone astray. They fixed his marriage with Shevanti, his childhood sweetheart.
Despite family pressure, Dadu decided that he no longer had time for a sweet, innocent village girl. It didn’t matter that she had waited for him all these years and was now considered “over-the-hill” in the marriage market.
Dadu reached Shirgaon the day before his wedding and gatecrashed Shevanti’s haldi ceremony. Looking her in the eye, he said, “I’m not ready for marriage. And when I am, I’ll marry a modern city girl.” He ignored the tears welling up in her big, beautiful eyes and left without looking back.
His family closed their doors to him for ruining her life.
Dadu finally stepped out of the house. An aspirin had made his headache bearable.
His driver had called in sick. He brought his swanky car out of the gate and stepped out to close it.
A couple of kids in uniform ran past him to the school. Late Kates, he thought. Just like me today.
As he opened the car door, he heard a cry. Irritated, he turned and saw a woman, face covered with a scarf, walking in his direction. She was dragging a very reluctant girl towards the school. The little kid was bawling her lungs out.
What a pain, he said to himself, wearing his seat belt. It was a hot day. He was wiping his sweaty face with a towel, when they passed by him.
All of a sudden, the little girl stopped crying and, pointing towards him, squealed, “Mummy, look, Papa!!”
Dadu froze midway through his wiping exercise.
The woman glared at the girl. “He’s NOT your Papa!! Shut up and move, Twisha. You are always late.”
She pushed Twisha in through the school gates and left.
Dadu’s heart was now in his mouth. Which of his girlfriends had done this? Was this woman one of them?
He reached office, lost in thought.
He couldn’t work that day. He tried to solve the mystery. Twisha must be four years old. So it had to be a girlfriend from his MBA days. He tried to recollect, but in vain. He’d had so many that he could only remember the one who had slipped out last night.
Dadu decided to wait for Twisha the next morning.
As expected, she was late again.
This time, Twisha stopped bawling and looked at him with bewildered eyes. The woman pulled her. She resisted and received a stinging slap on her cheek.
Involuntarily, Dadu called out, “Why are you hitting your daughter like that?”
The woman pulled down her scarf to reveal a total stranger. Dadu felt somewhat relieved. She glared at him and lashed out, “I’m NOT her mother!!” The next moment, she composed herself and retorted, “Mind your own business.” She walked away, pulling Twisha with her. The girl’s big, beautiful eyes refused to leave him till he was out of sight.
Dadu was more confused than mystified now. So confused that he returned home for lunch under the pretext of an official visit.
From the kitchen window, he watched the children having their lunch, playing and chattering noisily. Even as he wondered how to spot a tiny girl in that crowd, he saw her.
The playground had a small side gate that was always locked. It faced a little bylane that separated the school from his kitchen window. Twisha was walking towards the side gate, alone.
A young man was loitering outside the side gate. With a medium build and a moustached face, he looked very ordinary.
Twisha approached the man, who knelt down to be level with her. Dadu strained to hear the conversation, but couldn’t. He noticed that Twisha looked sad.
The man then gave her a chocolate bar. She took it happily and bounded away. The man left immediately without looking back.
Dadu had the feeling that the man wasn’t all that ordinary.
The next day, Dadu again returned home at lunchtime, only to see a replay of the previous day.
As it was a Friday, Dadu had to wait through the weekend before he saw Twisha again.
On Monday afternoon, Dadu went over to the bylane and hid behind a tree; yet he couldn’t hear them. When the man left, he walked up to the gate and called out. “Twisha!!”
Twisha turned. She recognised him and came over.
Dadu now felt awkward. How does one make conversation with a four-year-old?
He said hesitantly, “Hi Twisha!!”
“Hi Uncle!! You are the Uncle with the big red car, right?”
“Yes – why did you call me Papa that day?”
“You look like Papa. I thought you were Papa.”
Relief washed over Dadu’s face. “Oh, I thought that man was your Papa.” Dadu pointed at the receding figure of the young man.
“No, he’s Kishan Uncle. He’s so nice. He brings me chocolates everyday.”
Didn’t anyone teach this girl not to trust strangers?
“Why do you hate school?”
“I don’t hate school. Mummy holds my hand so tightly that it hurts. I only try to break free.”
Dadu wondered what to say.
Twisha continued, “Mummy pours water on my face if I don’t wake up on time. She doesn’t do that to my brother or sister when they refuse to wake up.”
A bewildered Dadu listened on.
“She cooks what they ask for. But when I ask for noodles, she scolds me. They get more food in their lunchbox than me. She says I’m a bad girl.”
To Dadu’s horror, Twisha dissolved into tears.
Dadu’s heart went out to Twisha, despite himself. He gave her the packet of biscuits he’d got for her.
Twisha squealed with delight. “Thank you Uncle!!”
The school bell rang. Twisha ran back to class.
Dadu now met the girl every afternoon. Over tears, biscuits and happy squeals, he realised that conversation with a child wasn’t rocket science, after all.
One Wednesday afternoon, Kishan turned back and spotted Dadu. The two men stared suspiciously at each other for a while. Then Kishan left.
The next day, Twisha wasn’t there. Nor was Kishan. Twisha could have taken a day off, but Kishan’s absence made Dadu smell a rat.
Dadu was surprised at how Twisha’s absence worried him. Why was it so? Because she’d mistakenly called him Papa? Or cried on the way to school? Or because the woman was cruel with her? Or because of the mystery surrounding the woman? Whatever it was, he couldn’t take his mind off her. He was no longer able to concentrate on his work. In meetings and at social gatherings, he would zone off in the midst of conversations, thinking about Twisha. And now he didn’t know what to do.
His instincts were right. He woke up on Friday morning to a forward on his smartphone. Twisha’s photograph had a caption stating that she was missing and the finder had to contact her father, Lakhan Singh.
Dadu dialled the number on the message. There was no response. He then forwarded the message to everyone he knew. He took the day off and roamed the city in his car, looking for Twisha, only to return late in the evening, disappointed. Someone was waiting for him at the gate. One glance at the tall, lean, clean shaven man with a crew cut was enough to recognise him.
“Daduji, Twisha is missing since Wednesday. My wife says she’d called you Papa. School kids say you’ve been talking to her.”
“Someone else has also been talking to her,” Dadu said, inviting him in.
“First tell me why Twisha calls your wife Mummy, yet she says she’s not Twisha’s mother.” Dadu needed to get the mystery solved first.
Lakhan realised that, to get information, he had to share some. He took a deep breath and began.
“I have a reputation of being jinxed – either I take wrong decisions or things simply go wrong. My first mistake was to leave my parents and family business back home in Bihar and migrate to Mumbai, the city of dreams. Mumbai wasn’t the cakewalk we’d imagined. My wife and I would struggle for our next meal.
“Finally I got a permanent job as a sailor – an ordinary seaman. It didn’t pay well, but we now had a steady income. We started sending money to my parents. A few years later, we were blessed with a son and then a daughter.
But my luck soon ran out. We were living in a chawl on rent. So I booked a flat in an upcoming building complex, investing all my life’s savings. That was five years ago. My wife had her suspicions about the builder. But I didn’t listen to her. You know Golden Town Builders?”
Dadu nodded, recalling how GTB had absconded, leaving behind some barren land and a hundred families bereft of their life savings.
“After this happened, my wife lost respect for me. My job keeps me at sea for months, with a break of around a month in between trips. When I returned home for the next break, she neglected me.
“Deprived of her affections, I strayed. One evening, I fell for a young, beautiful hooker. I started visiting her regularly. She’d been sold into the trade. We bonded well, sharing our tales of woe.
“But one night, the place was raided by police and the girls ‘rescued’. I didn’t see her after that. I returned to the ship.
“A year later, while back home on vacation, an unknown woman called up and requested me to meet her. She handed me an infant. It was Twisha, my baby. She said that, after the raid, the police had sent that girl to a women’s shelter. She turned out to be pregnant and decided to go ahead with it. But she didn’t survive childbirth. This was her child – my child.
“I asked the woman how she was so sure that the baby was mine. She replied, ‘Saheb, you were her first and only client.’ I was aghast. What had I done? I somehow arranged to have Twisha sent to a girls’ orphanage.
“When Twisha turned three, the founder of the orphanage left this world. His successors neglected the place. A year later, a staff member molested an inmate. The orphanage was shut down, forever. On my request, one of the caretakers took in Twisha till I found an alternative.
“This time, my only option was to tell my wife the truth and take Twisha home. As expected, hell broke loose. I lost whatever little standing I had. Finally, we shifted to a chawl in this area, so that the neighbours wouldn’t know us and I brought Twisha home. The very next day, I left for the ship.
“After I came to know she was missing, I returned this morning.”
Dadu sat openmouthed, wondering how anyone could mess up his life the way Lakhan had done.
“I know my wife treats Twisha differently,” continued Lakhan, his distraught face buried in his hands. “Though I do not endorse such behaviour, I would not blame her either.”
Dadu was surprised. He remembered Twisha’s big, tearstained eyes.
“I’m away from home most of the time, thanks to my job. My wife singlehandedly manages the house and brings up two kids on a shoestring budget. Yet she saves enough money to send to my parents. Without complaining. She’s a simple, traditional village girl at heart. She may punish me for my misdeeds. But she’ll never leave me. To her eyes, Twisha is a product of her husband’s sins. She vented her frustrations on Twisha.”
Lakhan’s words brought to Dadu’s mind another pair of big, innocent eyes, full of unshed tears. They were staring vacantly, waiting for someone who would never return.
“And now Twisha’s missing. Where do I find her?”
Dadu couldn’t answer that question. Just as he narrated everything about Twisha and Kishan, his cellphone rang. It was a colleague.
“Sir, please check your messages.”
Dadu opened his messaging app and saw a photograph of a crying girl with dishevelled hair, tattered clothes and a begging bowl in hand. He gasped. It was Twisha. The accompanying message gave the location as Byculla bridge.
15 minutes later, his driver dropped them below the bridge.
They spotted her outside Byculla railway station, seated on the dirty road next to an older boy who was simultaneously begging and keeping an eye on her. Dadu looked around. There was no sign of Kishan in the fast thinning crowd.
Before he could do anything, Lakhan ran forward. Twisha saw him. “Papa!!” Lakhan scooped her up in his arms.
The boy yelled, “Kishan Bhaiya!”
Kishan emerged out of nowhere.
Lakhan started running. Dadu followed. “Towards the car!!” He yelled.
Kishan was fast closing in on them.
Once they reached the car, Dadu shoved Lakhan and Twisha into it. “Go!!”
He turned, just in time to take the knife on his stomach.
Dadu woke up to find himself on a hospital bed. Though groggy from medication, he was overwhelmed to see his parents, brother, sisters and a gang of nephews and nieces around him. In the midst of all of them was a worried Lakhan. Little Twisha was massaging his forehead.
The sight of Twisha brought back his memory – he, the selfish, snobbish, child-hating Dadu had just risked his life to save a little girl who was practically a stranger. How in heaven’s name did he get so hooked to her?
As if to answer his question, Twisha said, “Dadu Uncle, you woke up. Now don’t go to sleep again.”
Ah, those innocent words. They conveyed so much. Yes, it was her innocence that had won him over. Innocence forever expressed in her eyes.
He was momentarily distracted by a figure that peeped into his hospital ward for just a fleeting second. Did he imagine it? No, those big eyes were unmistakeable.
He didn’t see the figure again during his stay in hospital.
Dadu later learnt that the child trafficking gang led by Kishan had been busted. Kishan was in jail.
A few days after Dadu was discharged, Lakhan visited him, accompanied by Twisha. While Dadu’s mother took Twisha to the terrace, Lakhan said, “Daduji, you know I can no longer keep Twisha in my house. I have to resume duties next week, if I have to keep my job. Can you help me find a good orphanage, or better still, a family willing to adopt her?”
Dadu was hoping he’d be asked this question. He was ready with the answer.
An emotional Lakhan folded his hands. “I will always remain indebted to you, Daduji.”
“Don’t be. She called me Papa, remember?”
While Twisha played with Dadu’s mother on the terrace, unaware of how many lives she had unwittingly straightened out, a pair of big eyes watched Dadu from the kitchen. And this time, they were filled with tears of joy.
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