Thursday, 1 September 2016

Short Story 2016 Longlist Vandana Kumari Jena

Father and Son

The lift seems cramped although it can take four people or 240 kg in terms of weight. As of now, it can accommodate one more. Suddenly a man enters the lift, presses the button and as the lift moves upwards the atmosphere becomes electric. I look at his curly brown hair, his greyish blue eyes, his aquiline nose and his cleft chin.  I see Rohit’s eyes widen with surprise. His eyeballs begin to protrude. If I didn't know any better I would think that they were in the danger of popping out. Raghav pulls a long face.  All the colour has gone from his face. He looks at Rohit and then at the stranger. His eyes dart from one to the other, not knowing what to say. I stand in a corner, the eternal bystander, wondering who the man is. My Fate, my Nemesis, this man, the mirror image of my son standing beside him.

Reactions begin to set in.  Rohit digs his nails into his palms. His eyes look at the stranger and then at me accusingly. He has judged me and found me guilty. He glances at Raghav pityingly. He is judgmental. Has been reading “Cuckold” by Kiran Nagarkar. It would not take a genius to figure out what he is thinking. I am not a genius but I know.

Raghav's face is deadpan. He has been successful in hiding his feelings. 25 years of marriage and I still do not know my husband well. Does  he also suspect me?  I am seething as well. But right now I am looking at the man who is towering above us, even above Rohit. He is oblivious to the drama around him. He is looking impatiently at his watch. He  must  have a Board Meeting to attend and must be  getting late for it. He must be a CEO of a company, I guess. He gets out on the 10th floor without a backward glance at any one of us. We are too shocked to say anything to him.
The lift reaches the 20th floor. Raghav gets out. Avoid unpleasantness. That has been his mantra in life. And he thinks that having shut the door behind him, he has cut off that chapter of his life. We walk ahead, leaving a shocked and befuddled Rohit to trail behind us.

The suite Raghav has booked in the Holiday Inn  is huge. It has a spectacular view of New York, the one city I have always wanted to visit. But Rohit will not let us live in peace. Raghav sits on the bed with his head  bowed. An ostrich. He picks up the television remote and begins to change channels. No soap opera can match our own but Raghav seems to be oblivious of the fact.  Anything to avoid a confrontation. And I know that is what we may be heading for. But I forget. Raghav is an ostrich. Right now his head is deeply buried in sand.

I have to take the challenge head on. “I am furious, I shall sue the clinic,” I say, “there must be a mix-up in the sample, and just how careless or unethical  is that.” “What do you think happened?” he asks. “They used the wrong sperm with my ovum, or maybe they implanted the wrong sperm and ova into me.”  Have I mothered a child of another man  unwittingly or am I  merely a surrogate? Is Raghav and my child  growing up somewhere else in another man’s home? Maybe in New York itself?  Or is Rohit my son,  fathered by a stranger? I wish the stranger had not been so self-absorbed. I wish he  had taken a good look at Rohit. Then maybe we would have had some answers. Or maybe a flurry of questions.
Rohit enters the room a few minutes later. He dumps his bag on the settee on which he has been sleeping and then bangs open our bedroom door without ceremony, an act of discourtesy he was normally never commit.

I wonder where he has been. To cry? Or to compose himself? Or did he stay outside to rehearse what he is going to say to us? Rohit  expects fireworks. I guess as much as I see the belligerent look on his face. I wonder what he is expecting? Divorce papers, ready to be signed?  “Mom,” he says, his eyes accusing, “Whose son am I?” He is not prepared for my answer. “That is what we are  trying to figure out son.”

The time has come  to tell him the truth. That he was not born  out of our lovemaking, as millions of children in India are, that he was conceived in a petra dish with Raghav’s sperm and my ovum, and then implanted back into my womb. A  child born thanks to IVF, a technique barely in existence so many years ago in India. But it appears that  the hospital messed it up. Was it the careless mixing of samples? I look at Rohit and see the look of aversion in his eyes. His eyes keep darting at Raghav. But Raghav’s face is  impassive. Only one thing registers with Rohit, that  he was a mistake.
“I shall sue the hospital,” I say, forgetting that Rohit is the child I nurtured in my womb for nine months. Forgetting that I nursed him at my breast, forgetting the nights I kept awake because of him  and the adventures I  had with him when I took him for long walks in the parks. Everything was washed away the minute a man, 6'2" tall, the mirror image of my son, walked into the lift, playing havoc with our lives. 

I look up and see Raghav looking at me speculatively. The anger that I feel towards the doctor begins to rage within me. I seethe with indignation. Does Raghav suspect me of infidelity? Does he think that the sessions we had with Dr. Sumedha were a charade? After all I was always capable of conceiving a child. Does he? But I cannot say anything to Raghav who is looking as impassive as ever. Suddenly I begin to feel guilty. I have no idea how  Raghav is feeling. I do not want Rohit to feel unloved either. We may not be his biological parents but people love their adopted children like their own, don't they? Raghav gets up and begins to  straighten  the  ornaments in the showcase. It is his way of coping. He turns his back at me. This is his way of turning his back at a problem. The clink of the ornaments is irritating. As he bends his shirts comes out of his waistband. He has turned his back on me. This is how he coped when he could not consummate our marriage. For years I slept on the crook of his arm, hoping that one day he would. He had tears in his eyes every time he tried, and many times when he didn’t. “I am sorry,” those are the only words he said.

The trip to US is jinxed. I think we all realized it that day we entered the lift. We cannot converse normally now when we have this issue hanging above us. We are  keen to return to India.
I look at Raghav repeatedly and begin to wonder. I hope he does not think  that Rohit is the result of some extramarital affair of mine.  I hope he does not think that  Rohit was born out of my affair with grey blue eyes, whom he saw in the lift, who I had passed off as being born as a result of IVF.
The travesty of it all makes me want to scream. For twenty years I  have lived  a lie with consummate skill. Because I did not want to shame Raghav. But I cannot take this lying down. I decide to go back to the clinic. Raghav cannot protest. He needs to know the truth as much as I do.

 It is good that the doctor who attended on us is still working in the Hospital. Dr. Sumedha’s beady little eyes glance at me through black rimmed glasses. “Yes,” she says, her voice stentorian, as though she is addressing me from the pulpit. She looks sanctimonious. The medical fraternity’s gain is the Church’s loss, I think inanely. Raghav  sits beside me, clucking his tongue. I decide to take the bull by its horns. “While in New York,” I say, barely able to control the rage simmering within me, “we saw a man who was the mirror image of my son.” She clears her throat and begins to speak. I cut her short. “Please do not give me any nonsense about everyone having a look-alike,” I say, “I know  all that. But this man looked exactly like Rohit. I do not know him.  I had never met him before in my life. Then how come Rohit looks exactly like him? What did you do?  Did you mix up the samples? What happened to Raghav and my child? Or did you inject the wrong sperm into my ovum? Have I given birth to another man’s child? I must know. I have the right to know. This is doing no good to our marriage. The suspense is killing me.”

Dr.Sumedha’s voice is chilling but emphatic. “There is no mistake,” she says, “we do not make that kind of mistake.” I see her   sidelong glance which is directed at Raghav and I see his face droop. He knows that she will sacrifice him if need be. Suddenly it clicks. I understand it all. This was not a mistake. This was an elaborate charade which was carried out with Raghav’s  consent. Or was it at Raghav’s behest? But why? And the answer comes to me. I grab the file Dr. Sumedha has before her. She shouts at me, trying to prevent me from snatching  it. Raghav yelps. I flip open the page and see Raghav’s report. Zero sperm count. Raghav could not have fathered a child. Not Rohit. Nor anyone else.  And he was not man enough to tell me that. And so the idea of a donor sperm. Without of course letting me into the secret, because he knew that I would object violently. It was one thing to live life as a celibate even though I was married. It was one thing to spend lonely days and nights, tossing and turning in bed, longing for the physical relationship with my husband.   It was another thing to bear the child of a stranger. I was not that desperate to be a mother. For the past 16 years Raghav  and I had bonded over Rohit’s birth, even though our marriage  was never consummated.  But with erectile dysfunction that was just not possible.  And then fifteen days ago I had met Rohit’s father. If I  had not, Raghav would have carried this secret to his grave.

I walk out.”Naina listen,” he shouts. But I continue to walk. We return home in silence. At home I begin to  pack my bags. “Naina listen,” he says. I had listened to him. I wish I hadn't. For twenty long years I had yearned for him with  a growing ache. For twenty long years I had maintained the charade of a happy marriage because I did not want to shame him. But no more.

Rohit deserves to know the truth and then decide on what to do, although I know that he will pack his bags and go back to New York to hunt for his birth father. As for myself, it is time for me to leave, and to live my life the way I deserve.

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