The rustling sound of the leaves alerted her. It was like her body was a-tuned to the time. She moved the drapes and peered out of the window. Despite being dark outside, she clearly saw the man waiting patiently under the shade of the banyan tree. His lithe body leaned against the bark, and like every time, he ignited his cigarette. The soft glow cast a shadow across his face for a fleeting moment. Every time she tried to see and recollect the face, but alas, she failed miserably. The one thing she was sure of was the tinkling of the amulet. How could she forget that sound? Those were her favourite from her mother’s collection.
“This was given to me by my mother and I will pass this on to you, my princess. This amulet is said to ward off the evil eye and protect its wearer,” explained her mother.
Her mother was extremely beautiful and had caught the fancy of the most eligible bachelor, who was the sole owner of the Singhania estate and business. She happily agreed to the union, as she came from a middle-class family with big dreams in her eyes. Sheela’s father, Ranjit Singhania, was a strict man and kept both Sheela and her mother under wraps from the outside world after an unpleasant experience with his immediate family. Her father had only Sheela and her mother now.
Sheela woke up disoriented, as always. The mystery man was responsible for her lack of sleep.
Life in the estate was routine and monotonous. Bestowed with the luxuries of the world, Sheela craved human interaction and company. Her mother had accepted this way of life and found solace in her music. She would play the ‘tanpura’ to a hauntingly beautiful tune mesmerizing her father, who hardly spoke. He would move his body in a trance-like whenever she played.
When Sheela turned 7, her mother requested a tutor for her as her limited knowledge wasn’t enough for Sheela’s ever-inquisitive thirst for answers. Her father also realized that Sheela was extremely brilliant and academically oriented. He relented and selected Satish Sahay, fondly called ‘Babu’, as her tutor. Babu was an excellent teacher and was known for his gentle nature and excellent character. Always, with a cheerful disposition, his presence was like a ray of sunlight in the dark and sombre estate.
Sheela enjoyed learning from him and he taught her much more than was in the printed books. He would tell her stories from his travels or anecdotes from his life. He was more of a friend and companion than a tutor. She looked at him as a father figure and tried to squeeze in all his affection and love which her own father had bereft her from.
Life unraveled as usual. Babu teaching Sheela on weekdays and weekends were quiet, each restricted to their own room. She never knew what a normal marriage was like and, in her limited knowledge, she considered it normal that her parents stayed in separate rooms.
Hell broke loose in the estate one day. Her father even broke his most precious vase as a sign of anger. Her mother cowered in a corner, sobbing uncontrollably. Why were father and mother fighting, was it something she couldn’t decipher? She heard the word ‘pregnant’ being mentioned several times and realized that it was the reason for the upheaval.
Life changed post that fight. Her father took to drinking more heavily and lost sobriety on most occasions. Mother had a distinct glow on her face. She beamed with happiness and was radiant. Her body started to change, and she told Sheela that she was going to be a big sister. Sheela, who craved company, was beaming and overjoyed at the news of having a sibling.
One night whilst it poured, amidst the sounds of heavy rains, Sheela heard the unmistakable sound of her mother’s amulet. She peeked out of the window and saw the familiar figure against the tree with his lit cigarette. At that precise time, a bolt of lightning struck, illuminating his features. It zapped Sheela to find it was none other than ‘Babu’. She saw Babu and another figure hurriedly retreat under her father’s black umbrella in search of shade. That was the last time Babu, her mystery man, was seen under the tree.
Her father’s deteriorated health and her mother’s cheerful disposition put Sheela at unease. Babu came on weekdays as usual, but something was amiss in his affable nature or was it that Sheela found him different now that she knew he was his mother’s lover. Confused, she started spending more time with her ailing father and tended to him, knowing his days were numbered. She discovered they had a lot of similarities and common tastes. She beamed inwardly that she was like him and hoped he could forgive her mother and they become like the family they were, distant and peaceful.
The day her mother delivered a healthy, beaming boy, her father departed for the unknown. Cloaked in white from head to toe, she watched her father’s body being led from the gate of their estate, never to return. It devastated her. The last couple of months had made her bond with her father much more than she had in 12 years. She was aghast to see Babu cry at the funeral as if repenting for his sins and seeking her father’s forgiveness.
Mother never expressed her sorrow at father’s death and kept busy tending to her newborn son. At his naming ceremony, she named him ‘Ranjit’ and smiled inwardly at her own joke.
Life started to change at the estate post father’s death. Mother held parties and celebrated all the functions that were never done previously. The estate was abuzz with servants and Sheela was also enrolled for a traditional school. Babu’s services were no longer required, and he came to bid her adieu. He hugged her and started crying, showering her with blessings of happiness and a long life. He asked to pursue her studies with dedication and make her father and him proud. He left without meeting her mother, which Sheela found strange.
Years flew by, Sheela, now a young lady, had finished her education at Cambridge University and was returning home to her mother and brother. The once-sparkling estate had lost its shine. Unkept and almost in ruins, it reeked of neglect. Her mother stood at the entrance to greet her, along with her brother. She hugged them but strangely felt nothing. She blamed it in the distance.
The trio sat at the dining table and had a meal. Sheela kept looking at her father’s chair and missed him. She headed to his study and ran a finger over his bookshelf. Dirt had accumulated over it. She started removing the contents and cleaned them. When she reached for the topmost shelf, a diary fell from atop some books. She immediately recognised her father’s handwriting. It was his diary that he’d hidden from everyone.
Unable to resist her curiosity, Sheela sat on her father’s chair and started reading it. It was an account of his life since he was a teen. She was aghast to learn of his preference, Father in bold letters had written: “I AM GAY”. Perhaps that was the reason for his bitter relations with his own family.
When she showed the diary to her mother, she was the least bit surprised. She sat her down and said, “Don’t you remember us staying in different rooms all our married life? I loved a boy in my neighbourhood and got pregnant with you. When he refused to marry me, I decided to end my life, that’s when I met your father. He offered to marry me and give my unborn child his name. As a mother, I did everything to protect you. Your father loved you like his own. I learnt about him being gay when I started following him each night and saw him and Babu together. I couldn’t do anything and pretended to be unaware. When I visited home to meet your grandfather, I encountered your birth dad and got carried away. A month later when I learnt of my pregnancy, it shocked your father and Babu both. Babu thought that your father had cheated on him and severed their relationship, that’s when your father started drinking heavily, which led to his death. What a cruel twist fate played. By the time Babu learned the truth, it was too late. It was Babu who had suggested that I send you to school.”
“Where is Babu mother? I’d like to meet him.”
Sheela couldn’t recognise the frail figure sitting at his home porch. With his glasses perched on his nose, he was reading as he always did. What caught Sheela’s attention was her father’s black umbrella hanging by the door.
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!