Thursday, 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Longlist, Neelam Saxena Chandra

THE WEALTH

While Ashutosh was lazily watching the television, he could hear his wife grumble. He wondered what the reason was and got up after switching off the television. As he peeked into the kitchen and saw the heap of utensils in the sink, he knew instantaneously what the reason was. Seeing him, his wife, Supriya began to weep and murmured, “I am having arthritis and this maid keeps taking leaves without informing. Yesterday, we had so many guests and my wrist aches so badly. How will I clean them?” Hugging her, he said, “Why do you worry so much? Now that I have retired, we will do the tasks together. You go and sit in the living room watching television and I will clean the utensils.”

Supriya looked at him in amazement. She said, “How will you clean? Never in my life have I seen you do any household chores!” Embracing her, he said, “Yeah, I haven’t exactly been a good husband. I remained too busy in my office. However, it doesn’t mean that I don’t know how to clean utensils. I have stayed alone for three years before marriage, remember?” While Supriya remained wonderstruck, he made her sit and he began his task. She would peep in every now and then out of anxiety, but he remained adamant that she should take rest. He also made some egg curry, while Supriya made the chapatis. While they were having their lunch, he whispered, “I know that the curry has a little more salt, but slowly I will be perfect. After all, I am making after so many years.” Supriya said, “But why don’t you wish to change? I am not used to…your cooking…you doing other household chores!” Embracing her, he said,

“Yeah, I haven’t exactly been a good husband. I remained too busy in my office. However, it doesn’t mean that I don’t know how to clean utensils. I have stayed alone for three years before marriage, remember?” While Supriya remained wonderstruck, he made her sit and he began his task. She would peep in every now and then out of anxiety, but he remained adamant that she should take rest. He also made some egg curry, while Supriya made the chapatis. While they were having their lunch, he whispered, “I know that the curry has a little more salt, but slowly I will be perfect. After all, I am making after so many years.”

Supriya said, “But why don’t you wish to change? I am not used to…your cooking…you doing other household tasks…it embarrasses me…”

He replied, “It’s all in the mind dear! As such, I have nothing to do. Ten years back, both our children had left the house and I made myself busy in the office. Now, we have made enough money and I wish to just sit and relax…and may be do some social work.” After Ashutosh had a nap, he got up and his feet took him to an orphanage being run by his friend, Parikshit Gupta and his wife, Poorva. Parikshit was five years elder to him and having found a little kid in front of his office gate had changed his mind and he had resigned from his job to begin this work. It was his way of giving something back to the society. His only son had left for USA long ago and rarely visited them. That he was doing well gave him pleasure, but his satisfaction came from tending to these small kids. His wife had been an equal partner, assisting him in every possible way.

Ever since his retirement, Ashutosh used to go off and on to the orphanage and teach kids. That day also Swapnil and Aayesha were extremely happy to see him. They had been taught Pythagoras theorem in the school and they hadn’t been able to grasp it. He got busy in explaining to them. By the time they had understood it and got busy solving problems, Harsh approached him with Magnetic theory. However, he couldn’t concentrate. Wails of a kid kept disturbing him. He decided to go to the office to find out about it. Parikshit’s clerk informed, “A little girl named Vaidehi has just been brought in. She lost her parents in an accident a month ago and no one is ready to take care of her. Hence…”

He knew the story. No relatives must have come forward to own up the responsibility of bringing her up. He moved towards the place where the sounds were emanating from. In the girls’ dormitory, while Parikshit and Poorva were trying to console the little girl, she wasn’t calming down. He looked at the girl. She was the one who reminded you of the poem, “Chubby cheeks, dimple chins…” The girl was so very innocent and adorable! Impulsively, he took her in his lap. The girl also calmed down and clung to him. After the sounds of her wails had softened, he tried to pat her back. Slowly, she began to fall in sleep.

After a little while, Poorva said, “Vaidehi is in deep sleep. May be, you could put her on the bed!”





He replied, “I don’t think, I wish to! She will wake up. She has already passed through a trauma. Let her sleep.”

After two hours, Vaidehi got up. His back had stiffened, but it was a wonderful feeling to see her smile after she got up. Poorva got her something to eat. Ashutosh began to feed her. She ate slowly. She would smile now and then at Ashutosh, which made him ask her a few questions. She chatted with him as if she had known him since ages. When she began to play with other mates, he had a look at the watch. It was 8 p.m. He realized that it was quite late and Supriya must be on a look-out. He got up and saying good-bye to Parikshit and Poorva, was about to leave when his glance fell upon Vaidehi. With her back leaning against the wall, she stared at him fearfully. Tears had gathered in her eyes, and she was trying her best to hold them. She pleaded, “Please don’t leave me!”

Ashutosh looked around, wondering what he should say. Parikshit said, “Don’t worry, you can leave. We will take care.”

As he stepped out of the room, he heard her cry again, initially softly and then unashamedly. He retraced his steps and was back into the room. Vaidehi rushed to his lap and clung to him once again and asked, “Baba, please say that you won’t leave me!”

Did he have a resemblance to her grandfather, he wondered. He found himself telling Parikshit, “Please let her with me and Supriya today. I will get her back tomorrow morning!

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Supriya was extremely worried when Ashutosh didn’t return for long. She called him at his mobile, only to understand after the first few rings that he had left the mobile at home. “He has no right to torture me like this!” she said to herself, “I am so worried if he is fine…after all, we are ageing now!”

Just then, his elder son, Kunal called up. She told him angrily, “Since your father retired, he has become very irresponsible. I am so worried about him and he is enjoying himself, I suppose!” Kunal calmed her down, “Don’t worry mummy! Where will he go at this stage of life?”

Just then she heard the creaking of the gate at the garden. Happily, she peeped through the window, but was surprised to see him return with a little girl. She told Kunal, “I think, I will call you in an hour. Your dad has returned…but…” He kept asking what the matter was, but she didn’t reply. She opened the door and bombarded him with the questions, “Where were you? And whom have you got with you?”

Gesturing her to remain silent, he told Vaidehi, “She is your dadi.” Vaidehi had a look at the entire house, praising Supriya every now and then. However, this didn’t seem to affect Supriya who sat in a corner watching television. After some time, when Vaidehi got busy playing with mobile, he came to Supriya and explained her the circumstances in which he had brought her. Handing her a night suit and two sets of dresses which he had purchased for Vaidehi on the way, he said, “At
least for a few days, she will be with us. So please bear with me. Try to love her, if you can. I know that it will be difficult for you, but the kid is my heart’s calling.”

After two days, Ashutosh took Vaidehi to the orphanage once again. But she started running back right from the moment she saw its gate. He understood that she would be comfortable only at his house.

Supriya had been so flabbergasted that she had stopped doing any household task. Ashutosh had calmly taken over everything. He cooked, he washed clothes, he swept and mopped. Vaidehi would follow him around like a complete admirer. At times, she would try to hug Supriya, but she remained relentless.

One day, he took Vaidehi for a stroll in the garden. Seeing the variety of swings, she was too happy and he encouraged her to play with all of them. When he returned, he was surprised to see his sons Kunal and Karan with their families. That day, Supriya had made dinner.

The arrival of Kunal and Karan wasn’t a routine affair and Ashutosh understood this very well. Though they stayed at Mumbai, which was hardly at a distance of three hours from Pune, they rarely came. He could also see that they had come with suitcases, which meant that they had come to stay. Though the conversation appeared normal, he realized that there was something more to their advent. What worried him was the fact that though their children were playing with Vaidehi, neither Kunal nor Karan had even talked to her. They had coolly disregarded the warmth that she had displayed on knowing about them.

After the younger children had gone to sleep, Kunal and Karan came straight to the point in presence of their wives, “Papa, what has happened to you? Why have you got home an orphan? You have become insane!”

He also replied irately, “I think what I am free to do what I want to do. It gives me inner peace and satisfaction.”

Hearing this, Supriya started crying. Kunal said, “If not us, you should at least think of your wife who has supported you in every ups and downs of your life!”

He asked astonishingly, “And how does my decision affect you? Haven’t I done enough for you? Are you not well settled?”

Karan replied, “If Vedika comes home, your wealth gets divided into three, whereas it should have been divided into two after your death.”

He hadn’t ever thought of it this way. He had simply fallen in love with the kid Vedika and got her home. He had realized that his wife hadn’t liked the idea, but he had assumed that she would get adjusted soon. He had thought that the problem was only about tuning with the new situation. Even in the wildest of his dreams he hadn’t envisaged that it could be related to wealth. After all, both his sons were earning well. He was so annoyed that he decided to distribute his entire wealth between Vaidehi and Supriya. That night, Ashutosh couldn’t sleep. He stared at Vaidehi who was sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware of the turmoil around her. Supriya kept sobbing
in between which kept hurting his heart. Both of them didn’t try to calm down the other and the night passed restlessly.

In the morning, his mind refused to have repose. Though he was physically with his family, mentally, he had gone far away. It was only when Vaidehi came and said with a kiss on his cheeks, “Baba, won’t you have breakfast?” did he relent. As usual, he fed Vaidehi with his own hands, which was watched wrathfully by Supriya as well as Karan and Kunal’s family. The atmosphere was so hostile, that he decided to go and immediately sign a will for distribution of wealth.

While he was leaving the house, Vaidehi suddenly came and said, “Baba! I also wish to come with you!” he hugged her tight and said, “Betu, I will take you out after I return. I have an important errand.” Kissing him on his forehead, she returned to the house.

Just as he was approaching the house of Mr Naidu, who was also a lawyer besides being his friend, he felt a severe pain in his chest, which he disregarded. However, after taking another step, he completely lost control over his body and fell down with a shriek. Hearing the noise, Mr Naidu rushed outside. Ashutosh couldn’t keep his eyes open, but he murmured, “Please pass on half my wealth to Vaidehi!”

It was only after Ashutosh was declared “brought dead” by the hospital and his family members rushed there did Mr Naidu find out who Vaidehi was. He loved the kid but knew that there was nothing he could do about Ashutosh’s last wish. After all, it was not on paper.

When Ashutosh’s body was brought home, Vaidehi rushed towards him and hugging him shouted, “Baba, what has happened to you? Please open your eyes, baba!” When Ashutosh remained still, she rushed towards Supriya and asked her, “Dadi, what happened to baba?” while Supriya kept sobbing, Kunal forcibly took her away from there and said irately, “You’ve eaten my father, now don’t come out of the room!”

Vaidehi meekly returned to the room. Neither did she cry nor did she rebel. She was as silent as a stone. Slowly, the house was swarmed by so called well-wishers. Among them was also Parikshit. As soon as she saw him, she quietly went and sat near him. When he got up, she also stood up and started following him with firm steps. He asked, “Don’t you wish to stay with dadi?”

She replied with a well-chiselled simple word, “No!”

Parikshit knew that it would be long before he would see a smile on Vaidehi’s lips. However, he knew that he had to make her laugh someday. After all, that is what Ashutosh would have wanted!

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