Dark clouds pierced the veil of the horizon and unleashed their fury on earth. The howling wind produced a cacophony in the ears. Somewhere, a hundred-year-old tree uprooted and lay scattered on the ground. Those living under thatched roofs witnessed their ceilings blow away with the wind. Electricity played truant throughout the day and for much of the night.
That was also the day when I saw my father cry for the first time, and my world began to change.
At five-feet-11-inches and thirty plus, my fair-skinned father had lean muscles all over his body and arms reaching up to his knees. Every morning, he used to get up at the crack of dawn and go for his ten-kilometre run. Upon his return an hour later, my mother would give him a cup of tea, which he would enjoy with his two morning newspapers. Then he would tell me a story before going for a bath. Not even my favourite movie actor could beat him in charm once he donned the olive green uniform decorated with stars on either side of the neck. I loved the sound that his black boots made on the floor as he picked up his briefcase and scooter keys from the table and left for work.
As a five-year-old, I was the apple of my father’s eye. Every day, I waited for him to come back home from work and would run to him the moment his scooter entered the massive front gate of the colonial-era mansion where we lived. After alighting, Dad would first deposit his briefcase on the table before scooping me into his strong arms and safely entrenching me on his burly shoulders to tour our three-bedroom house. The world seemed painted in a different hue from the top of my father’s head.
Then in the evening, my father would again leave to play football, basketball or volleyball— depending on which sport his regiment focused on during that week. Returning home after sunset, he would take a bath, watch the news, and regale me with stories after dinner until I fell asleep.
However, on that fateful day, my father didn’t follow his usual routine. A military vehicle dropped him off at home in the blurry evening. Instead of smiling at me, he went straight to the kitchen to talk to my mother. Soon the loud sounds of an argument reached my ears, and I ran to my bedroom. I don’t recall when I slept off.
I remember the sniffles waking me up. Dad was sitting on the bed, looking at me. The tears flew from his eyes, unabashed.
“What is the matter, Daddy? Why are you crying?” I asked.
“Nothing, dear. Go back to sleep,” Dad replied in his gentle voice.
“I don’t want to sleep anymore,” I said.
He looked at me for a considerable time without a word.
“You want to go on top of the world?” he asked me, eventually.
I was smiling even before he engulfed me into his arms.
“Where are we going, Daddy?” I asked after the train started to stir from the platform.
A gigantic wagon had collected the large furniture items from our home two days ago. My parents had packed all their bags, sold some of their baggage, and locked up the house before leaving for the station.
“We are going to your grandfather’s place,” my father replied. “You will enjoy your time there.”
I turned my face to the train’s window. The grandeur of my mother’s maternal home was too grandiose for my taste.
But that train journey has carved a niche in my memory. I feasted my eyes on the sun, rain, wind, and moon from my window seat. Children of all sizes played cricket at various places, notwithstanding the heat or the shower. I tried to identify the different types of stones that came into view wherever a parallel railway track was vacant and imagined the life of people travelling in the other trains that crossed ours. The aroma of the food that we bought from the station delighted my senses. Dad narrated many stories to me, including the ones of my favourite Vikram-Betal.
I started to look forward to the return journey even before the train had reached its destination the following day and enjoyed the ride from the station in the black-and-yellow taxi till the vehicle stopped in front of a four-storey blue building.
After entering the courtyard of the house, my parents and I climbed up two storeys to find my grandparents standing at the front door to welcome their son-in-law. My father touched their feet.
“Welcome, son. We are so glad to see you,” my grandfather said.
“Touch the feet of your grandparents, Sumeli,” my mother nudged me. I marched forward and bent down to touch the feet of both the elders at one go.
“Our little girl has grown so much. How time flies!” my grandmother said. I recalled her mouthing the exact same words during our visit last year.
All the floors in that blue building belonged entirely to my grandfather. My grandparents and maternal uncle lived in the three-bedroom house spanning half of the second floor. The two residences in the basement were given on rent, so was the other half of the second floor. An open paved terrace demarcated the two halves of the property. The vast open roof on the fourth floor was dotted with potted plants of myriad varieties and intended for the sole use of the owners of the property.
“You have so much open space to play here,” Dad remarked to me over dinner later that night.
“When are we going back, Daddy?” I asked.
My father looked at me. “I don’t know,” he said.
That was new for me. My father always knew everything.
The dinner was a big family affair. My grandfather sat with one leg hunched up to his chin at the head chair of the dining table, eating with his hands. Dad, flanked by my uncle, sat beside him. The ladies of the house- Grandmother, Mom, and I, sat on the opposite side.
“They will stay at the other wing on this floor,” my grandfather remarked to Dad between the mouthfuls of food. “It is vacant at present. I will draw the rent agreement. Are there any specific clauses that the Army stipulates for inclusion in contracts of such nature?”
“Eat your dinner,” my mother said, and I lost the rest of the conversation thread.
The next day, my parents and I shifted to the apartment on the other half of the property. Mom was busy unpacking our luggage, cleaning the house, and converting it into a home over the ensuing two days. She took a particular delight in setting up the kitchen. I couldn’t see the kitchen’s utility at our place when we ate all our meals at our grandparents’ house.
One evening, three days after we had arrived, my father spent more than the usual time carrying me on his shoulders, and narrated five stories to me at one go.
“So, the little girl took good care of her mother while her father was away. She studied hard and got good marks. Her father was thrilled when he returned and rewarded her,” he concluded while gently putting me down on the ground.
“That was a nice story, Daddy. But you must be tired after all the walk and talk. Don’t carry me for so long in the future,” I said.
“You are familiar with the surroundings now. Explore all the nooks and corners on your own from tomorrow,” he responded.
I was about to ask what he meant when Uncle and Grandfather entered our room. My father got up.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“Where are you going, Daddy?”
“Your father is going to the railway station with us,” my uncle said.
“How much time will you take to return?” I asked Uncle.
“An hour, an hour and a half at the most.”
“Ok. I will wait for you, Daddy.” I smiled at my father. Dad kissed my forehead and left.
I loitered here and there for a while before settling at the only chair on the second-floor terrace overlooking the front gate. It was some time before my grandfather’s white ambassador drove into the entrance.
I dashed to the basement parking and collided with my grandfather.
“Careful girl,” he admonished me.
“Sorry, Grandpa. I didn’t see you in the dark,” I replied absent-mindedly, my eyes searching for my father behind his shoulders.
But only Uncle was standing beside him. There was no one else. “Did my eyes miss spotting my father in the dark?” I thought, and asked, “Where is Daddy?”.
The two adults exchanged glances.
“Your father has gone away,” my uncle said.
“Away?” I echoed.
“Yes. He has gone to fight a war raging in another corner of the world.”
I was in a daze as Uncle held my hand and guided me upstairs. I was expecting my father to come back with the others. Dad had left without giving me any notice!
“Wars take many years to end,” I recalled the words from one of my father’s stories.
When will Dad come back? When will I see him again?
I slumped to the ground upon reaching the terrace. I heard without listening to the adults around me crying out my name. I just wanted to sit on my father’s shoulders and be on top of the world.
Days turned into months, months into years, and it was four years since I had seen my father. I didn’t have much to do during this time and didn’t want to do the little I had. My only interests were the red-coloured inland letters that were to be spotted once a month — if I was lucky — amidst the paraphernalia on the dining table. They were always addressed to my mother, who would prise open these letters by running her forefinger through one of their rectangular corners. I always hoped that she read aloud these letters; they were the only window to my father’s world. But she never did.
One fine day, as I sat quietly on the balcony gazing at nothing in particular, a postman’s voice jolted me from my reverie. “Is there anywhere here?” he called from the basement. “I have got a telegram.”
I ran inside to my grandfather.
“A postman has come with a telegram. Please unlock the gate,” I panted.
The old man did not hear me as the courtyard bell rang.
My grandfather went to the terrace and froze at the sight of the postman.
“What is the matter, Father?” My uncle asked him from behind.
“The postman has arrived with a telegram. I hope he hasn’t brought any bad news,” my grandfather said, more to himself.
“I will go and see.” Uncle went down immediately.
By then, the two ladies of the house had also gathered at the table. Mom started to shed copious tears. “I cannot bear another bad news,” she wailed. Grandmother’s reassuring pats on the back seemed to only increase her lament.
We all could hear the sound of my uncle’s heavy footsteps climbing up the staircase. His gaze went from his father to his elder sister and back to my grandfather again as he entered.
“Jijaji is returning!” he exclaimed. “He will be here by the end of next week.”
As my heartbeats returned to normal, I could hear the sighs of collective relief in the air. But my mother started to cry even more loudly.
“Don’t cry, my child. Whatever was destined to happen, has happened,” my grandfather consoled her. “Your husband is returning safe and sound by God’s grace. Everything will be fine again.”
I looked at my family, happy after a long time, and closed my eyes before uttering a silent prayer to God.
My father was coming back. I felt on top of the world.
The yellow ball of fire blazed in all its glory, the trees and vegetation trembling under its ire. There wasn’t a single patch of white to be seen on the horizon. Not a single animal was out on the streets, while even the human movement was sporadic on that day.
That was also the day when I saw my father cry again.
I was comfortably seated on my regular spot on the balcony in the sweltering heat, my eyes rooted on the main gate, waiting to welcome my father. I wanted to go to the station with my uncle, but no one listened to me.
My grandfather’s faded blue ambassador pulled up in front of the gate, and my uncle got down from the driver’s seat. I leaned forward for a closer look at the person getting down from the other side.
The gait had slowed. The fair skin had turned brown, the face was worn and weathered. There was a hint of a bald patch where the forehead ended and hair began. Yet, the sturdy shoulders easily shouldered the burden of two bags.
I ran to the second-floor entrance and rushed past the gathering of the other family members to stand in the front. The sound of footsteps on the staircase echoed in my ears. Then, finally, my father’s silhouette became visible.
Dad slowly climbed up the last few steps, put down his bags at the door, and first touched the feet of his in-laws. Then he smiled at my mother, the twinkle in his eyes overshadowing the wrinkles beneath. His eyes looked past his wife, searching for someone.
“Where is Sumeli?” he asked my mother. “I am sure she would be as tall as you by now. Though I don’t think I will be able to carry her on my shoulders anymore, I have many stories to tell her.”
“I am here, Dad,” I shouted, but he did not hear. He could not. No one could.
For in that house of humans, I was a ghost.
The elders of the family exchanged glances as my mother started to cry. My grandfather cleared his throat and said, “Sumeli is no longer in this world. Your departure was a shock to her. She took ill after you left and died a few months later. We did not want to demoralise you and hence did not inform you about her death. I am so sorry.”
The air became heavy as tears trickled down from my father’s cheeks. He made no attempt to stop them as my uncle hugged him.
“Son, you have your whole life ahead of you. By the grace of God, you and your wife will be blessed with another child soon,” my grandfather tried to pacify him, without success.
I held my father’s hand. “I had told you, Daddy, that I will wait for you. See, here I am. How could my soul depart from the world without seeing you? Will you carry me on your shoulders one more time? Will you tell me your stories, Daddy?”
I did not get an answer.
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