[Issue 13 / 1 May 15]

I looked out the window, just for a few seconds, to see the multitude of tired faces waiting to reach the comfort of their homes. The light turned green; with my concentration back on the steering wheel, I pushed my foot down on the accelerator pedal with as much force as I could muster and sped away. It wasn’t that I had a very physically taxing job, but at the end of my 9 to 5 day, I couldn’t wait to curl up in my comfy blue armchair with a hot cup of tea in one hand and the TV remote in the other.

The flat was unusually quiet when I got there. Aditi was stuck in rush hour traffic; the Times of India office was one hour away from our apartment block. My 11 year old ball of energy was fast asleep and I diagnosed that as the reason for the eerie silence. I slowly opened the white wooden door that had ‘MAYA’ written in colourful letters all over it. A glowing face and mane of brown hair stuck out from under the thick blanket. Her peaceful smile calmed me, and I stood there, at the door, watching her. She was a replica of her beautiful mother. Not an inch of her body and not a single feature on her face resembled her father, I told myself over and over again. He was not her father anymore. She was my princess.

I heard the car door slam and rushed to open the door to Aditi.

“You look so tired. Bad day?”

“Uff, the traffic! I’ve had a Crocin but my headache hasn’t subsided.”

“I’ll get you some chai, Adi.”

“You are such a darling! Can you put some extra sugar in it? I’ve had a bitter taste in my mouth since lunch. Speaking of bitter things, Kalyan sent me another e-mail today.”

The smile on my face disappeared.

“Saying what?”

“The same things—it’s not fair keeping his daughter from him, the court’s ruling ruined his life, blah blah blah.”

“There’s no way I’m letting that monster near Maya. Did you reply?”

“Not yet. But I was thinking…”

“NO! He doesn’t deserve to be in her life after all that he’s done to the two of you. Aditi, don’t be silly.”

“But he has a point. This is the 8th email he has sent in 5 days so he’s obviously very keen. He hasn’t seen her in over 3 years. Maybe he has reformed. He could meet her for an hour under our supervision, no? He’s her father, Aman.”

“I’m her father.”

“Maya is your daughter and you are a wonderful father. But you know what I mean…”

“No, I don’t. He’s a dangerous person and even the court agrees with me on that one. We can’t let him meet Maya just because he wants to. Even with us around, he could say or do something that might hurt her. Besides, she’s too young to protect herself or even understand what’s going on. Can’t we wait a few years before we subject her to that monster?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want Maya to grow up wondering who her biological father is and why he isn’t in her life.”

“Aditi, listen to me. Let’s meet him without Maya—sometime soon, okay? And let’s explain to him that she’s too young right now but in a few years we’ll allow him to meet her under our supervision. So he won’t be out of her life completely, and he’ll stop bothering you for a while at least. I need to protect you and Maya. Your safety and happiness matter most.”

“Okay,” she said, smiling.

*

Initially, Maya had been wary of me. She used to hide behind Aditi every time I tried to communicate with her. On a good day, I’d get a shy smile, but on a bad day, she’d push me and tell me never to come to ‘Mum & Maya’s home’. Her fear of adult males had not spared me. But as my visits to their house became more frequent, she grew comfortable with me and slowly we became friends. We played Chess and watched Tom and Jerry on TV, we told each other Knock-Knock jokes and I taught her how to make my famous ham sandwiches. It took a while for her to open up but it was the most beautiful phase in my life.

Now, three years after the wedding, she is my best buddy. She adds the laughter to my dull days and the colour to my monotonous life. I cannot imagine spending a day without her.

Behind the curtain, the clouds began to make way for the sun. I had been awake since 4:30 in the morning. I was talking to God, thanking him for the two angels in my life, wondering how I’d gotten so lucky, and praying that everything would stay the way it was.  The sun reminded me that Maya had to be woken up for school.

“GOOD MORNING, LITTLE ONE!”

“I’m not little,” she muttered, still half-asleep.

“OKAY. GOOD MORNING, GIANT.”

She giggled and got out of bed. Behind me, I heard someone chuckle. Aditi was standing in the doorway, watching us.

“Maya, go for your bath. Dad will pick you up after school today.”

“Don’t you have to go to office, Daddy?”

“It’s the boss’s birthday so he’s declared it a half-day for everybody. He’s crazy,” I explained to her.

“When I’m older, my birthday will be a national holiday!”

“Absolutely! Now run along, sweetie.”

*

The moist wind struck me with intense force and I struggled to keep my feet fixed on the ground. Satya Valley School’s towering black gate had kept me waiting outside for more than fifteen minutes and the uncomfortable chill in the air was making me impatient.

I could see streams of children walking towards the school exit, and I searched for the one I had come for.  Finally, I spotted her in a group of five girls. The breeze blew her hair in every direction, the sun seemed to have been replaced by her bright smile, and her eyes glimmered with joy. She walked with grace, feline, and her body swayed to the music of the laughter around her. She was beautiful and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Her curvaceous contour blurred everything around her and I couldn’t focus on anything else. In the privacy of my mind, her black and white uniform shirt was lying on the floor. I had an uncontrollable urge to run towards her. My heart was racing, I could hardly breathe–

STOP! What the hell is wrong with you, Aman? Have you lost your mind? She’s your daughter. Your child! Look away; see the trees and the cars and the towering black gate. That was not you. You are not that kind of man. You never had those thoughts.

That was not you.

Beads of sweat moistened my forehead, my palms were clammy, my head was spinning, and I felt a few tears escape my eyes.

Before I knew it, the gates had opened and hundreds of students were ambling along, in search of their buses. From the corner of my eye, I noticed Maya begin to stride towards me. She had spotted me but I looked away, avoiding eye contact.

“Hi Papa!” I felt her arms around me. My hands stiffened; they didn’t leave my side.

“What happened, Daddy?”

“Nothing. I have a headache. Let’s go home.”

I drove in silence and when we got home, the same eerie stillness greeted me. But this time, I had caused it.

I slammed the bedroom door behind me and lay down on Aditi’s favourite floral bedspread that covered the king-size mattress. I forced myself to shove all other thoughts away and concentrate on the Colgate advertisement I was working on instead. But every time I closed my eyes, I saw the malicious eyes of a man as he objectified the innocence of my little Maya. It must have been Kalyan, I told myself over and over again. I didn’t know I was crying till my hand grazed the damp pillow.

The doorbell rang, and I could faintly hear Aditi’s voice in the living room.

“How was your father-daughter afternoon?”

“Daddy has a headache. He’s been asleep for 3 hours.”

I shut my eyes and pulled the quilt over my head, knowing that Aditi would approach me in just a few moments. I wasn’t ready for that. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, least of all my wife.

I felt her hand on my shoulder.

“Aman, are you awake?”

No response.

“You need to get up and have some medicine.”

She shook me. I couldn’t keep the act running any longer, so I let my eyes breathe.

“I’ve had two tablets already. I just need to sleep.  I’ll be okay.”

“Okay.”

I was alone with the demons again. The guilt had drained my body’s energy and I only wanted to sleep. I slipped in and out of uneasy slumber but every time consciousness returned, they were still there.

*

I watched the city lights go off one by one, focussing, begging myself to concentrate on something. When the lights had all faded to make way for ominous darkness, the little voice inside my head awoke.

You can’t live like this forever. You need to do something about it.

What should I do? It’s not like that was me. That’s not who I am. Something must’ve gotten into me; it’s not a big deal. Everything will be alright. There’s nothing to worry about.

You need to protect Maya.

Should I talk to Aditi about it? Or should I pretend like it never happened?

YOU CAN’T PRETEND. You won’t be able to live with yourself.

I closed my eyes. The little voice took me back to that day, and I watched the most frightening movie I’d ever seen. There was no way out.

A yawn escaped my mouth, but I knew sleeping was out of question.

Aditi rolled over and I saw her eyes flutter open just for a second.

“Why are you still awake?” she asked me drowsily.

“Aditi, I wanted to tell you something.”

“Arrey, not at this ungodly hour. Tomorrow morning.”

“It’s important.”

She turned to face me.

“Something happened; it was a mistake and I didn’t even know what was going on. I don’t know. I can’t understand it.”

“You make no sense.”

My nervous laughter filled the silence.

“Nevermind. I’m sleep-deprived. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“Okay, good night.”

I doubt semi-conscious Aditi had even registered what I had said. I had missed my chance.

You are a coward.

I willed the arms of the clock to move faster, waiting for the light to return.

*

Normalcy could not be restored. Weeks went by, but those cruel eyes, Kalyan’s eyes, didn’t leave me alone. They didn’t leave Maya alone.

“Aman, what’s wrong with you? You’re a zombie and your headache has persisted for days! We need to see a doctor.”

“I’m fine, yaar. Everything’s alright. I just need some quiet time. That’s all.”

“I don’t know what’s come over you. You haven’t spoken to me properly in so long. The only words you say to Maya are ‘good morning’ and ‘good night’. I spoke to Rajeev and he said you’re behaving like this in office too. I don’t even know you anymore. Have you slipped into a depression or what?”

I turned my head away from Aditi to see Maya sobbing in the corner of the room.

I had robbed Maya of a father and Aditi of a husband.

*

Maya was at a birthday party. This was my window. I handed the papers to Aditi.

“WHAT!?”

She didn’t look sad, just angry. And confused.

“I can’t do it anymore.”

“What!?”

“I need you and Maya to be happy. You will never be happy with me.”

“This is not about us. This is about you. Selfish bastard!”

“I love you. And I love Maya. I always will.”

Simultaneously, the waterworks began in her eyes as well as mine. She looked at me in disbelief. Another Kalyan had abandoned these two incredibly beautiful women.

I shut the door behind me and walked away from the monster I never thought I’d become.

*

 

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Tarini Mehta, a 12th grader at Sanskriti School in Delhi, has developed an unconditional love for Shahrukh Khan, chocolate chip ice-cream, Hyderabad, big words and bizarre characters, red colour, and the people around her. Her permanent silly grin, squeaky voice and evident happiness define her best. There's no place she'd rather be and nothing she'd rather do; life is good!

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