Tuesday 10 August 2021

Smita Jain, ShortStory 2021 Magazine

 On Top of the World

Sumeli would never forget the day.

Dark clouds pierced the veil of the sky and unleashed their fury on earth. The howling wind produced a loud cacophony in the ears. Somewhere a hundred-year-old tree had uprooted and lay scattered on the ground. Those living under thatched roofs were unfortunate to witness their ceilings blow away with the wind. Electricity played truant throughout the day and for much of the night.

But four-year-old Sumeli had only a vague recollection of the fury that nature wrecked on that fateful day at Noida, Uttar Pradesh. For her, this would always be the day when her father had cried.

Like all daughters, Sumeli was the apple of her father’s eye. Every day she waited for him impatiently to come back home from work. Her eyes never failed to lit up whenever her dad’s scooter entered the massive front gate of the colonial-era mansion where they lived. Her father would first deposit his green VIP briefcase on the cupboard, then scoop up the delighted Sumeli into his strong arms, safely entrench her on his strong shoulders and take her through a tour of their three-bedroom home. Sumeli would burst into peals of laughter on seeing the world atop her dad’s head.

However, that day, her father didn’t follow any of his usual routines. Instead, an army vehicle dropped him off at home in the blurry evening. He was grim and went straight to the kitchen to talk to her mother instead of looking at Sumeli. Soon the sounds of an altercation between her parents reached Sumeli’s ears, and she ran to the sanctuary of her bedroom. She lay down on the bed, and her tired mind soon fell asleep.

The sniffles woke her up. She saw her father sitting beside her on the bed, looking at her. Tears flew unabashed from his eyes.

Sumeli sat up in a flash. “What is the matter, Daddy? Why are you crying?”

“Nothing, dear. Go back to sleep,” her father replied in a gentle voice.

“I don’t want to sleep anymore,” Sumeli declared.

Father and daughter looked at each other without a word. Then, after a few minutes, Sumeli’s father’s eyes dried up.

“You want to go on top of the world?” he asked Sumeli.

“Oh yes,” she replied and was smiling even before her father engulfed her in his arms.


“Where are we going, Daddy?” Sumeli asked after the train started to move from the platform.

A large wagon had collected the large furniture items from their home two days ago. They had packed all their bags, sold some of their baggage, and locked up the house before leaving for the New Delhi station. Her Mom had said that they were unlikely to come back to Noida again.

“We are going to your Nana’s place,” her father replied. “You will enjoy your time there.”

Sumeli looked out of the window of the train without saying anything. Her impressionable mind didn’t probe her father further, accepting the facts as they were.

Sumeli’s parents lived in Orissa’s capital city of Bhubaneshwar. She had visited her grandparents on rare occasions before, so the grandeur of her mother’s home felt imposing to her. After entering the courtyard from the front gate, she and her parents climbed the two-storey of stairs to reach the front door where her grandparents stood to welcome their son-in-law.

The building had four floors that belonged entirely to Sumeli’s grandfather. Her grandparents and their grown-up unmarried son lived in the three-bedroom house spanning half of the second floor. The two houses in the basement were given on rent, so was the other half of the second floor. An open paved terrace separated the two halves of the property. The vast open roof on the fourth floor was dotted with potted plants of myriad varieties and intended for the sole use of the owners of the property.

“You have so much open space to play here,” Sumeli’s father remarked to her over dinner later that night. Sumeli shrugged. The building, while open, didn’t seem inviting.

The dinner was a big family affair. Her grandfather sat with one leg hunched up to his chin at the head chair of the dining table and ate with his hands. Her father, flanked by her uncle, sat beside him. The ladies of the house- her Nani, Mother, and Sumeli herself, sat on the opposite side.

“They will stay at the other house on this floor,” her grandfather remarked to her father between the mouthfuls of food. “It is vacant at present. I will draw the rent agreement. Are there any specific clauses that the Indian Army stipulates for inclusion in contracts of such nature?”

“Eat your dinner, Sumeli,” her mother nudged. Sumeli lost the rest of the conversation’s thread.

The next day, Sumeli and her parents moved to the house on the other half of the property. Her mother was busy unpacking their luggage, cleaning up the house, and making it into a home over the next two days. The kitchen was the first to be functional, though Sumeli couldn’t see its utility when they ate all their meals in their grandparents’ place.

“She is so attached to her father,” Sumeli’s mother whispered to the girl’s grandmother over dinner. It had been four days since they had arrived in Bhubaneshwar. “I am afraid of her reaction when she comes to know.”

“Children are more adaptable than what we give them credit for,” the older woman said serenely.

Sumeli didn’t pay much attention to the adult talk. She preferred the peaceful silence of her world to the ceaseless chatter of the adults. Adults were dull people, her father being a notable exception to this rule.

After dinner, Sumeli’s dad spent considerably more time than usual carrying Sumeli on his shoulders. He even narrated a story to her.

“So, the little girl took good care of her mother all the while that her father was away. She studied hard and got good marks. Her father was thrilled when he came back,” he concluded his tale while gently putting Sumeli down on the bed.

“That was a nice story, Daddy. But you must be tired after all the walk and talk. So please don’t carry me for so long from tomorrow.”

“You are familiar with the surroundings now. Explore all the nooks and corners on your own from tomorrow,” her father responded.

Her uncle and grandfather entered their room before Sumeli could give a reply. Her father got up.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Where are you going, Daddy?”

“Your father is going to the railway station with us,” her uncle said.

“How much time will you take?” Sumeli asked her uncle.

“An hour, an hour and a half at the most,” he said.

“Ok. I will wait for you, Daddy,” Sumeli turned to her father.

Her father kissed her forehead and left.

She wandered around for a while, then sat at the only chair on the second-floor terrace that overlooked the front gate. Her eyes didn’t move from the entrance till she saw the shadow of her grandfather’s blue car draw up at the gate.

She dashed all the way down to the basement parking only to collide with her grandfather.

“Careful, child,” he admonished.

“Sorry, Nana. I didn’t see you in the dark,” she smiled at him.

Her eyes went to her uncle, who stood close behind, then lingered past him. Sumeli blinked lest she was missing to see someone under cover of the dark.

But no one else apart from the two men was there.

“Where is Daddy?” she asked with a sinking heart.

The two adults exchanged glances.

“Your father has gone away,” her uncle said.

“Away?” she echoed.

“Yes. He has gone to Srilanka to fight the LTTE, along with others from the Indian armed forces. There is a war raging there, and the Government has decided to send our troops for its neighbours’ aid.”

The two adults went upstairs, expecting Sumeli to follow them.

Sumeli was too stunned to react. Her dad had left without giving her any notice. She had thought that he would come back with everyone else; no one had made her believe otherwise.

She realised that she didn’t know when her father would come back. She didn’t know much about wars except for the fact that they take many years to end.

Sumeli slumped to the ground on her knees as tears coursed her cheeks. Her cries reached the elders upstairs, and her mother hurried down.

“Come back soon, Daddy,” the young girl shouted at the air. “I want to see the world from atop your shoulders for one more time.


Sumeli sat quietly on the balcony, gazing at nothing in particular. She didn’t have much to do and didn’t want to do the little she had.

“Sumeli, come and have your lunch.” Sumeli didn’t hear the voice of her mother calling her inside.

“Child, come and eat something,” her mother, now closer to her, implored. “You hardly ate anything in the morning. You need some nutrition in that body of yours.”

“I don’t want to eat. You go ahead, please.”

“I don’t know what to do with Sumeli,” her Mom confided to her mother after returning inside. “She is always so quiet. Her school tiffin often comes back half full, and on those days, it doesn’t, I am not sure whether to credit her or her classmates. Her school diary often contains the remarks ‘Not paying attention in class.’ She doesn’t seem to have any friends. It is I who talk to her; she won’t mind if I don’t. I am worried. What will her father say when he comes back?”

Days had turned into months, months into years, and now it was four years since her father had left for Srilanka.

As a matter of routine, Sumeli went to school every Monday to Saturday and sat there bored, listening to lectures taught by her teachers.

Her classmates often teased and ridiculed her. Was that because she was too tall and thin for her eight years? She could never fathom the reason. She wasn’t bothered by what others did, except that one day when the boy sitting next to her pinched her palm hard and the tears came out. This rare display of emotions from the most reticent child in the class encouraged other mischievous students to join the activity, resulting in Sumeli yelling in pain. Her yelps had brought the teacher to her rescue, but the damage was done. From that day onwards, her indifference for school had turned to hatred. She was always the first to leave her class whenever the afternoon bell signalled the end of the day.

Studies didn’t seem to interest her. One day she had to fill the blank page of her notebook with capital A as a home assignment. One hour later, when her mother came after housework, Sumeli was still staring at the notebook, the page untouched. She had then berated her, “You are a foolish and useless girl. You neither help me with household work nor complete your homework. What will you do in life?” Sumeli was too hurt to say anything. Her silence was taken as insolence, and further condemnations ensued. So it was a great surprise to all in the house to see Sumeli clear her year-ending exams with flying colours.

Her grandfather kept a tab on the news, and dinner was replete with conversations on the Indian Peace Keeping Mission (IPKF) contingent’s progress against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) in Srilanka. India’s presence in the foreign land had grown to three lakh plus strong contingent over the past four years. However, the Indian Government always parried media’s queries on the withdrawal timelines of its troops.

Words from her father were regular, even if far between. Once every month, a red-coloured Inland Letter landed inside the postal box outside the main gate of her grandfather’s house. Bearing the postmark of the Indian Army on the cover, this letter was meant to be used only by the soldiers posted in the remote field locations of the country. The red colour was supposed to be an indication for postal authorities to prioritise them for delivery. Nevertheless, it took anywhere between twenty to twenty-five days for these letters to reach the addresses of the intended recipients.

Sumeli’s eyes twinkled whenever she saw this red-coloured letter amidst the other paraphernalia on the dining table. They were addressed to her mother. Every time they arrived, Sumeli waited for her mother to prise open the letter by running her forefinger through one of its rectangular corners. One of the three and a half pages of available writing space was invariably written in English and reserved for Sumeli. Her mother would pass over the letter to Sumeli after reading the Oriya text. Sumeli would read her father’s letter immediately and then reread the contents every single day till the next one arrived. She had preserved each one of these letters.

The one-sided conversation in the letters was her only window to her father’s world. She could not write back to him; no civilian was permitted to be privy to the actual location of the soldier stationed in a war zone.

Her dad was always warm and open in his letters. However, off late, she had started to detect the growing scepticism in her father’s syntax.

“Sometimes, I wonder if my life is all about killing my fellow men. I draw solace from the fact that I murder in self-defence and that if I don’t pull the trigger, the enemy in front of me won’t hesitate to do so. The soldiers who fought in the wars before this one had at least the mental satisfaction of doing their best to save our motherland. What justification do I give myself for fighting a war in this alien country? One good thing about being on the battlefield is that we don’t get much time to think,” her dad had mentioned in the last letter to her.

“Child, call one of your elders.” The postman’s words from the basement jolted Sumeli from her reverie. From her usual position at the terrace, she had missed seeing the man in the khaki uniform arrive on his cycle. “I have got a telegram for your mother that needs to be hand-delivered, and this gate is locked,” he drawled.

Sumeli ran inside as fast as she could and saw her grandfather first.

“The postman has come with a telegram. Please unlock the gate,” she huffed even as the old man froze.

“Nana, did you hear me?” Sumeli reiterated after getting no response for five seconds.

“What is the matter, father?” Her uncle called from behind.

“The postman has brought a telegram. It wouldn’t be bad news, would it?” Sumeli’s grandfather spoke more to himself than his son.

“I will go downstairs and see.” Her uncle went immediately.

The two ladies had left the kitchen midway and gathered near the table. Sumeli’s mother had started to cry. Her grandmother’s reassuring pats on the back seemed to do little to quell her tears. Sumeli’s impressionable mind could not comprehend the raison d’etre for the sombre situation.

All of them heard the sound of Sumeli’s uncle’s heavy footsteps climbing up the staircase.

“What does it say?” The older man asked before his son could enter the room.

Her uncle glanced from his father to his elder sister, who was too terrified to speak, then back to his father again.

“Jijaji is returning,” he exclaimed in triumph. “He will be here by the end of next week.”

The audible sighs of collective relief suppressed the flutter in everyone’s chests at this unexpected piece of good news. Sumeli’s grandmother closed her eyes, uttered some prayers to her God, and then hugged her daughter. Tears of joy flew unbridled across her mother’s face.

“Did you hear that, Sumeli? Your father will be here soon,” her mother said.

Sumeli nodded, a toothless grin spread across the corners of her face.


The sun blazed in all its glory. There wasn’t a single patch of white to be seen on the horizon. The trees, plants and vegetation shrivelled under the yellow ball of fire. Not a single animal was out on the streets, and even human movement was sporadic on that hot and humid day.

Sumeli was comfortably seated on her regular spot on the balcony in the sweltering heat, her eyes rooted on the main gate. No one had thought about asking her to go to school today. Instead, she would be there to welcome her father.

Two days ago, her father had called from Delhi. He had boarded the train to Bhubaneshwar on the same day and was expected at home today.

Sumeli wanted to go to the station with her uncle, but the other ladies had dissuaded her. “How will you stand at the station in this heat? Your uncle will find it difficult to keep an eye on you and take care of your dad’s luggage as well. Your father will come here only. A couple of hours more won’t make much of a difference,” her mother had said.

The hundred and twenty minutes of additional waiting time indeed made a difference to Sumeli, but she kept her opinion to herself. After all, adults would never understand the mind of a child.

Her grandfather’s faded blue car pulled up in front of the gate, and her uncle got down from the driver’s seat. Sumeli leaned further into the railing to get a closer look at the person getting down from the other side.

The walk was slow. The fair skin had turned brown, and the face was worn and weathered. There was a hint of a bald patch where the forehead ended and hair began. But, still sturdy after four years, the shoulders easily shouldered the burden of the two bags.

Sumeli went inside reassured. Her father had come back.

Other members of the family had already gathered at the entrance of the front door. Eventually, the sound of footsteps on the staircase echoed in her ears. Then, finally, the silhouette of her father appeared.

Her father slowly climbed up the last few steps, put down his bags at the door, and touched the feet ohis in-laws. Then he smiled at his wife. Finally, his eyes turned towards Sumeli, the twinkle in them overshadowing the wrinkles beneath.

He put his hand over her head in affection. “You are almost as tall as your mother now.” A slight frown crossed his face. “I will not be able to carry you on my shoulders anymore. You are too grown up, and I am too old now.”

There was a pause in the air as a tear trickled down from one of her father’s eyes. He was quick to wipe off the same.

Sumeli took the hand of her father and said, “I will listen to your adventurous tales; you would have many to share from the last four years. Will you tell me your stories, Daddy?”

Sumeli’s father smiled and firmly squeezed his daughter’s hands before stepping into the house.

It was another day that Sumeli will always remember. Finally, after a long time, she felt on Top of the World again.

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