Saturday 15 August 2020

Chandrika Radhakrishnan, ShortStory 2020 Longlist

The Other Man

It’s not always easy to fight the other man in your life, particularly when the other man happens to be your wife’s father!’

Sanjay realized that his wife had yet to grow up. Sanjana was very much her father’s little girl. This problem was further compounded by the father’s attitude. It was not that he willfully damaged his daughter’s family. It was just that the ‘lost puppy’ look was even more difficult to manage than the ‘real filmi kind of overt villany’.

It was the same where ever they went, be it a holiday or an outing, the day was spoilt and they invariably came back earlier than planned because his father –in –law put such a brave front when they left and the genuine happiness when they came back was too much to fight against. Now he was at the wit’s end for he had received a two-year overseas project and he wanted his wife and his little daughter to accompany him but his wife’s reply still troubled him.

“Please understand Sanjay. I just can’t leave dad for two years.”

“But” he sputtered, “what about you and me and our family? Moreover, Sanjana, he is not that old. He is only in his fifties.”

“Please, you can’t compare yourself with dad. He is older than you! Moreover, he will be lost without me. ” Seeing his thunderous look she relented and pouted. “You know I would miss you but I wouldn’t dare tell you to miss this professional growth.”

It was almost like she refused to feel a ‘married woman’ and a ‘mother’. He had met Sanjana when they were colleagues. He was blind and deaf to his newfound love’s unhealthy attachment to her father. Her constant “My father this”, “My father that” should have been enough to raise a red flag but then he made excuses for her as he was too smitten to look beyond. She lost her mother when she was quite young so he felt that it was but natural to be attached to that one living parent. He often found himself spending half of his courtship at her place. Whenever he had planned on an outing and went by her house to escort her, he often found that she wasn’t ‘ready’ and her father was making dinner for all of them.

He beamed when Sanjana explained, “My father was the most important man in my life till I met you. So please bear with me as I want both the important men in my life to really like and respect each other.”

His idea of ‘getting along well’ was just not having a threesome all the time except on the intimate moments but even then he could hear his father- in- law pottering about in the next room and that inhibited his style. He was afraid that the passionate moans and groans could be heard on the other side. Sometimes he wondered if his father-in-law could be that oblivious to the younger couple needs. Unfortunately, he was too much in love with her and was content making her happy and never thought of airing out his concerns or discussing his disquiet. It never struck him that she was carrying this filial love too far. He remembered having appreciated her affection for her old man for after all he had sacrificed his personal convenience and never even entertained the thought of any woman replacing the real mother in his daughter’s life. It was just that he had no other interest that took his thought away from his precious daughter. He refused to even accept that there was a grown woman that had replaced his little girl. He obviously hadn’t heard of the fact that love can be dispersed without it being displaced.

Post wedding, he had moved into their house thinking it was a temporary solution till they found a place of their own but somehow, it became a permanent arrangement so much so, he stopped trying. He remembered an incident from his early days of marriage. Sanjana was flicking through a magazine as she was sprawled on the sofa. He sat down and requested for a hot cup as he felt feverish after a long and taxing day at office. He opened his eyes to have a cup of tea thrust in front of him.

“Sanju, I had requested you to make a cup not your father… “

His upbringing made him feel uncomfortable whenever his father-in-law waited on them. He would have liked to help his wife in the kitchen laughing over their inventions rather than feeling like a permanent guest in the house. It was rarely that they had some alone time laughing over a cup of tea and asking about each other’s day at work.

“Sanjay, she too goes to office just like you. What does it matter to you who makes the drink?’ His father-in-law interrupted him rather harshly.

It was the same even during her pregnancy. Her father pampered her so much as if she was the only woman in the world to have had morning sickness. Many a time he felt like a usurper in their house and he had to admit he actually was despite him being a successful professional. The daughter in Sanjana was never expected to do any work. She was waited on and his father-in-law managed the show with the help of household help. He even accompanied them for doctor’s appointment which made him feel like incapable human being. His father-in-law even had the temerity to tell Sanjay after her hours of labour that it would be better if they stop with one child as Sanjana was not to be burdened with one more. He ignored all these aspects for the sake of peace, but now this mutual dependence was growing with the passage of time instead of waning as he had hoped. He felt so ashamed thinking of all the times he had neglected his own parents because Sanjana just did not feel like visiting his place as her father had to be left alone. They too could never visit him as he never had a home of his own.

The motherhood had not mellowed Sanjana. Most of the times, his three year old daughter found solace with her grandfather as ‘her mother was resting’ till Sanjay returned home. But, then Sanjay too was putty in his daughter’s hands and found it difficult to say a ‘no’! Would history repeat itself? He hoped not. He wasn’t even sure whether he would have a family still when his girl grew up for the way his marriage was going ‘legal separation’ wouldn’t be a farfetched idea. The very thought of separating from his little girl had a sobering effect.

Just this morning there had been a row between them and Sanjana was giving her very famous silent treatment.

“Sanjana, I think it is high time we seek professional advice. We need the help of a marital counselor. ” Sanjay had suggested.

A frosty “why” had him replying heatedly, “Even you, with your short sightedness have to accept that our marriage is not very healthy.”

“Whose fault is it?” She retorted angrily.

“Mine most certainly!” Sanjay had answered strongly. “If I had married a grown up instead of a girl who refused to grow up, like the female version of Peter Pan, it would have been better for all concerned. Your father is breaking up our marriage and you are a willing abettor.”

There it was in the open. The underlying resentment has to be out in the open someday. She rushed at him ready to claw him. He sidestepped neatly and slammed out of the room. She found it hateful whenever her father was projected in poor light and till today Sanjay had avoided it. They sat down for the breakfast. He watched the father –daughter duo and wondered how his father-in-law was blind to the hostile atmosphere. He suddenly wondered if the old man was truly innocent and was genuinely not aware of his role in damaging his daughter’s marital life. He had not once asked Sanjana her plan when he knew that Sanjay had started his own preliminary preparation for departure, neither was he worried about the couple’s separation for two years. Sanjay toyed with the food and left the table taking his daughter, Misti to drop her off at the play school on his way to office. He neither spoke to his wife nor her father as he was still smarting from the treatment of both of them. He regretted his hasty marriage to one of the most beautiful and amazingly selfish girl and wondered at his own idiocy for not seeing through her at once. ‘No one can save this marriage unless a marriage counselor walks into the house’, he fumed as he drove down the road.


“Bua is coming down for a week.” Sanjana was informed as soon as she came home from office and was handed over a cup of coffee prepared by her father.

“When?” She grimaced exchanging a conspiratorial look with her father. She knew that her father too was not too happy about this visit of his once favourite sister well- known for not mincing her words.

“The coming Friday and she leaves next week for our hometown to visit the rest of the family.” Prakash was afraid of his sister, Puja. She and he were actually the closest of all siblings and they had eleven of them. She was a great help when Deepa passed away and lauded his effort when he single handedly brought up Sanjana. They fell out after she started criticizing him about his growing absorption with Sanjana. Sanju was too young to understand the full purport of their fallout. She only knew the censored version that her father chose to update her with and she too carried his jaundiced view point. She now blacklisted her once favourite aunty.

The atmosphere at dinner on Friday was so thick that Puja could easily pick up the vibrations. The innocent expression of Prakash did not fool her. Sanjana as usual sported her petulant look. She often wondered if that girl had used a rubber band to have that permanently puckered look to her lips! She glanced at Sanjay and knew that the lips had ceased attracting him and she was glad that he was no more the devoted puppy. Puppies too grow up. He had disappointed her when she had come down for the wedding. Her niece needed a firm hand yet one that held her own or else she was the type to run rough shod over all. She was one spoilt madam thanks to her brother. He just couldn’t help himself spoiling her as he was afraid …. Yes that was it! He was afraid to be alone. It was not that he was basically bad, but was helpless and if Puja knew her brother; he must be on one hell of a guilt trip.

“So what is your plan, Sanjay?” asked Puja. “When are you all leaving?”

“I am leaving next month…” said Sanjay shortly laying emphasis on the singular form with a virulent look at Sanjana who appeared almost callous in the way she continued eating dinner. He was even angrier and unhappy at the thought of leaving little Misti. He played the major role in her life yet now that he knew how and where he was in Sanjana’s life, the thought of being an extra man in the match captained by the father was all the more appalling.

“Was it too late to mend things?” Puja wondered and glanced at Prakash who appeared carefully innocent. “Oh Prakash, what are you doing to your daughter?” cried Puja silently. “Could a feeling of insecurity bring out the worst in people?” she wondered.

She decided to take the bull by its horns. You cannot always be liked, Puja decided philosophically. There are times when plain speaking is needed whether you are welcomed or not.

“Why are you not going, Sanju?” asked Puja.

“How can I leave father alone that too for two years?” She retorted sharply. “It’s an obvious solution to people with heart.” She said with a bitter look at Sanjay.

“Oh… is it? It doesn’t sound obvious to me. You at thirty three refuse to grow up and don’t want to leave your father, yet you want your daughter at three to leave her father and stay with you and your father! Amazing how such an obvious solution eluded me!” Puja was her sarcastic best when it came to fighting the unjust and the wrong. “It is high time you grew up. I never knew that some woman take all their lives to just grow up. Why I think your young daughter is more mature than you ever were.” She said looking at the three year old playing quietly with her dolls while the elders were having dinner. “If Sanjay had not been so much in love with you, let me assure you, you wouldn’t have had so much of a leeway. You are selfish, immature and extremely unfair.”

Sanjana grew red with humiliation and anger but could not find fault in the veracity in her aunty’s words. Puja turned her ire on Prakash but looking at the broken man just kept quiet. What she had to say to him was best said in private. She understood her brother and did not want anyone to realize his weakness. Later …..

“Why Prakash? You of all the persons just quiet and you know very well that you are doing more harm to the person you love the most in your life?”

“I am afraid ….” He hiccoughed in anguish. “for Sanju I was the most important … but now like a coward .. I am afraid, angry that she will turn away from me. You were right long back that I was spoiling Sanju, but I couldn’t help myself. She is everything. I left all interests, hobbies because I had to play both a father and a mother in her life. Later after she grew up, I was afraid to let go. I needed her as she needed me when she was young. I am using her as an emotional crutch and I hate myself. Didi, I have turned into a despicable man. Sanjay is a better man than I am.”

Puja was by his side in a minute, tears pouring down her cheeks. “You are not a coward. Very few men would have done such a remarkable sacrifice as you had done. Deepa would be extremely proud of you … but now she must be in anguish too. “She said thinking of her lovely sister-in-law. “

You know Prakash, our family never ever heard of the word ‘defeat’, that is why you took up the mantle of caring for Sanju so admirably. Now you are going to take up some job that does not include looking after Sanju and her family. That she has to learn for herself. You shouldn’t have taken a voluntary retirement. It was too early for you and you are just now reaching the retirement age. You are going to take up a hobby, a part time job. At the outset, you are going to start visiting your loved ones beginning with next week. We are going to re-discover our relationship. We all have been missing you at family get- together ever since Deepa died. ” She said hugging him close and he swore that he would allow his daughter and her husband to unravel the knots that he had made in his daughter’s life.

He would learn to walk alone letting them fly on their own.

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