Thursday 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Featured Writer, Vandana Jena

Father and Son

“Daddy," said Rohit, “How did mummy die?” I looked up from the newspaper, startled by the question. He stood before me belligerently, his jaw sticking out. He was in no mood for fairy tales. “You know. I told you before, she died in an accident.” Then I watched him. His stance was aggressive. “Lies,” he said, “all lies.” He waved a newspaper at me. It was old and yellowed. Its edges were frayed. “Where has he got hold of it?” I wondered. I had left the newspaper cuttings in an old trunk, right at the bottom, beneath a thick blanket. Maya. I swore under my breath. The new maid with her fetish for cleanliness. She stood at the doorway every morning, her eyes reproachful. “Babuji,” she would say, “phir se?” As though dropping a towel in the bathroom floor was a mortal sin. She must’ve taken out the old clothes for an airing and dumped the old newspapers in the balcony and Rohit had spied them.

“I would have told you but...” “I was too young.” His voice was accusatory. I flushed.

“I am sorry,” I stuttered. “Sorry?” he sounded incredulous, “She committed suicide and you did nothing?” I heaved a sigh. He must have read an excerpt. He didn’t know the whole story, Thank God.

He stormed into his room and banged the door. I heard the bolt turning in. He had locked the door. I tottered unsteadily on my feet. Dengue had left one weak. My joints were aching. I tottered back into my bed. What was done was done. Rohan refused to emerge from his room even after Maya had banged on it thrice. I began panicking. I hoped he had not done anything stupid.

After sometime I began to feel delirious. The maid had left. I had not eaten anything. I was too nervous to do so. Suddenly I heard a movement. My 16-year-old son stood before me with a bowl of steaming khichdi in one hand and a steel plate with a bowl of curd in another. “Open your mouth,” he said, as once Anjali had said when I was ill with typhoid. “Eat.” I ate slowly, unable to find the strength to eat food quickly. Rohit spooned the khichdi slowly into my mouth, as patiently as a mother feeding her son. His eyes were brimming. “How could she do it to you?” he said, his voice low, “how could she betray you this way?”

It was obvious that he had read all the papers. He knew the whole story. I had nothing more to add.

“She committed suicide. She hanged herself from the fan in a hotel room. Just a day before my birthday. When her lover had gone for a swim.” His voice was full of distaste. “Don’t judge your mother too harshly,” I said, “Society has judged her enough.” The newspapers, initially sympathetic, had turned voyeuristic, reveling in the scandal of a seemingly happily married woman found hanging by her neck in a hotel room, while the hotel reservations revealed that she was not with her husband but with her lover. Newspapers love to bay for blood. Staid, boring husbands do not make headlines and boost newspaper sales. Illicit love affairs do, as do high profile men like Mahesh Dadlani. He was flamboyant. The media loved him. He and Anjali had been having an affair for three years, while all this time I was wearing blinkers. The cuckolded husband, that’s who I was. I garnered sympathy from the press. Ferrets in the media dug up details of when Anjali and Mahesh met, for how many years they had been together and much more. As the facts began to sink in, so many things became clear, many sordid details began to unravel. Why Anjali needed to go to Mumbai so frequently. Not merely because he was a high profile client for the company in which she worked, but because he was someone with whom she was having an adulterous relationship. Three years was a long time. How could I have been so blind?

“Do you want a DNA test done?” asked a scribe when he met me for an interview. “No,” I said vehemently. “Why not?” asked Rohit, after reading the media reports. “Why did you not get the DNA test as suggested by the press? That would have strengthened the case against Mahesh Dadlani. He would have been arrested for abetment to suicide.” Rohit was waiting for my reply. He was disappointed that I had nothing to say. “He is my son,” I remember telling the press and the police,

“He has been my son since the day he was born. The paternity does not matter to me.”

I thought of Anjali for whom Rohit was not enough, our marriage was not enough, she had to seek pleasure elsewhere. For a Sales Manager in a well-known company, a University lecturer was boring. She wanted more from life. I should have seen it, but so happy was I when Rohit was born, that I overlooked everything. When she wanted to go to Mumbai just four months after Rohit was born I did express my reservations but she was so persuasive that I gave in. “You can manage, Mrinal,” she said, smiling at me, “I think you make a better mother than me.” It was true. It was I who got up at night and changed the nappies. It was I who crooned lullabies to Rohit so that Anjali could get her beauty sleep. It was I who fed Cerelac to Rohit. Anjali was right. Her trip to Mumbai would not have inconvenienced me greatly.

But that was just the beginning. The trips became more frequent and Anjali began to stay away from home while I juggled with my lectures and my baby son. One day while I was in the midst of my lecture I got the phone call which changed my life. “Are you Mrinal Sharma?” said a disembodied voice. “Yes,” I said. I did not know that the next few words would destroy my life. “I am sorry,” the man began saying, but the alarm bells still did not ring. I was annoyed at being disturbed in the middle of my lecture. “Your wife is dead.” Only when he said these ominous words did I recoil. “What happened? Did she die in a car accident?” I asked, still numbed and unable to react to the news. Anjali was a rash driver. I suspected that she was driving and had a head-on collision with a truck and had died instantaneously. The truth was far more sordid. Newspapermen swarmed into my residence and wanted to interview me. They wanted to know why Anjali had committed suicide.

Why has she done so? I had no clue then. I was not much wiser now. Had Mahesh Dadlani refused to divorce his wife and marry her? Did they have a fight? Or was Anjali besieged with guilt at having betrayed me? Was she tottering on the brink of a nervous breakdown? She was supposed to return the next day, in time for Rohit’s first birthday. We had planned a quiet celebration. I was not someone she liked to flaunt. I did not blame her. I blamed arranged marriages which match horoscopes and not personalities. I blamed arranged marriages where a groom who asks for no dowry is seen as heaven sent. I blamed arranged marriages which see PhD as a degree to be flaunted and ignores the plain nondescript face which holds the degree. We were mismatched pair, I admitted myself. Anjali was drawn to Mahesh Dadlani, a big name in the media world because of his magnetic personality and the power he exuded. I paled by comparison. They had been having an affair for three years. I did not need three guesses to know who Rohit’s father was. But Mahesh Dadlani had not been there for Anjali when her contractions began. I was. He had not paced up and down the corridor when she was rushed to the labour room. I had. He did not hold Rohit in his arms after he was born, I did. He did not see Rohit cut his first tooth. I did. He did not hear Rohit say, “Papa,” even before he said, “Mama.” I did. Surely that counted for something. Surely this is how a father and son bond. Surely I had a stronger claim of being Rohit’s father than Mahesh.

“After Anjali had gone I had nobody but you. I could not let them take you away from me.” I turned to my bookshelf and picked up a tattered copy of Harold Robbins’ `Where Love Has Gone,’ where the hero was faced with the same dilemma as me and had reacted in the same way. “For me you are my son and will always remain so.

That’s all that matters.” As I held Rohit tight I thought I could still smell Johnson baby powder on him. I knew that it was just my imagination. But I knew that however tall he grew, he would always remain my baby.

It is ten years now since Rohit had confronted me. Things have changed since then. I am ill. Liver cirrhosis. I do not drink or smoke. I suffer from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Something had to give way after Anjali’s suicide. My health did. I am on my death bed now, at least I think so. I need a liver transplant. But where can I get a match? Who will donate? Government rules on organ donations are so strict. I am reconciled to dying. The doctors are hopeful. I am not. I am a pessimist by nature, or maybe I have become one. It is difficult to live with betrayal. It leads to a sense of inadequacy.

The doctor meets me enthusiastically when I come to meet him for a check-up this time. I can see his eyes shining. He has been trying to find a living donor for me. Getting a dead donor’s liver is not possible. The waiting list is too long, and I do not have time at my disposal. “We have a match,” he says. “Who is it?” I ask. He would rather not say. “I will tell you when the time comes,” he says. I do not probe too much. I am overwhelmed by God’s kindness. Illness turns every non-believer into a convert. I was a theist to begin with.

A few weeks later I am admitted to the hospital. The surgery is scheduled to take place a few days later. But they need to get me readied for it. Rohit was expected to fly from Mumbai where he works, before my operation. He was to be with me when I was admitted. But he couldn’t come. He doesn’t call either. I make excuses on his behalf. But nothing works. It hurts. “He’s just a child,” I say to myself. But a 26 year old is a child no longer We may not be father and son but I have brought him up like my son. Where did I fail? “Like mother like son,” the words come to me inadvertently. The rancid taste in my mouth will not go away.

I am lying in the hospital bed, silently chanting `Hanuman Chalisa’ when the doctor enters. There is someone standing behind him. Rohit. My eyes widen with joy, and then constrict with dismay when the doctor says, “Your donor.’ My face blanches. “No,” I say, “Not Rohit.” “Why not?” says the doctor, “He’s a match.” “Why do you want to do it?” I ask Rohit., “You are too young. There may be complications. Something may go wrong. You may die.” My list of worries goes on. “The liver is a remarkable organ,” says the doctor, “it rejuvenates.”

The liver transplant is successful. But I am more worried about Rohit. “He is fine,’ assures the doctor, “We will discharge him after ten days. Both of you can recuperate together.” I pine for Rohit. But the doctors don’t allow me to go to see him. A week later he comes to see me. He is on a wheelchair. “Don’t worry,” he says, “This is just a customary precaution.” He is smiling broadly. He is happy that I will live a few more years. But the smile on his lips will not go away. “I am grateful to you for giving me a new lease of life,” I begin to say. He does not respond. I am slightly hurt. I expect him to say something. But he has more important things on his mind. He gets up from the wheelchair and hands me two reports. I squint and try to read the printed pages. He picks up my reading glasses which are lying on the table and puts them on my nose. They are DNA reports. When was my DNA sample taken? I have no memory, but then I had undertaken a flurry of tests. I must have forgotten. I read the DNA reports, Rohit’s and mine, in bewilderment. A 50% match. Is that possible? Is he, is he really my son? He envelopes me in a bear hug, mindful of my bandages. “You’re welcome, father,” he says.

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