Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Baby Girl (A short story)

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Nisha gave birth to a girl, whom we named Mary, little did I realise that it would be the start of all our problems. We were living in Bandra. My name is Mathew Joseph and I worked as a copywriter in an advertisement agency. My wife used to work in a private firm in Bandra before her pregnancy.
I earned just about okay. But as time went on, I was astonished to see my salary go up in smoke, to meet little Mary's expenses. The milk powder; the medicines; the high fees of the paediatrician; the clothes; the toys. It went on and on. I felt that we could no longer survive on my single income. Yet, I wondered, how could my wife go to work, when she had a small baby to look after.
"Nisha," I said one evening, after I returned from work and dropped my dusty and sweat-stained shirt into the clothes basket, "it's so difficult for the three of us to survive on my single income. There are so many expenses now."
"So what should we do?" Nisha said, as she sat cross-legged on the bed with Mary on her lap, "I don't have a job. You know the firm refused to give me leave for my pregnancy because I had not worked there long enough."
"Maybe, you could start working somewhere else," I suggested hopefully.
"Who will look after the baby, Mathew?" Nisha said, matter-of-factly, "you told me that we cannot depend on a maid or something."
"That's true," I said, cracking a knuckle of my middle finger, "Mumbai is full of untrustworthy servants. They have links with thieves."
"So what can we do?" Nisha said, as she opened the top three buttons of her blue housecoat and pressed a nipple into little Mary's mouth.
I looked around the cramped room. The bed took up three-fourths of the space. There were cracks at the corners of the ceiling, dark, black lines like the roots of a tree. The blue paint of the door had peeled off in places, to reveal the faded brown wood underneath. It was depressing.
"How about giving Mary to my parents in Kothamangalam?” I said. “They can look after her, till she reaches a school-going age. Then we can bring her back. Mary will get proper love and attention."

"They are too old," Nisha said, with a sad shake of her head, "both our parents cannot take this burden. And your mother is not in good health."
That was true; my mother had high blood pressure and diabetes. I remained silent.
I was 28 when I went down to Kerala to see a few girls. But I liked Nisha the best and decided to marry her. She was simple and slim, had kaajal-rimmed eyes and waist-length black hair. She did not have the slickness and the promiscuousness of the Mumbai girls. She was 24 and worked as a computer data-entry operator in a private firm in Ernakulam.
We got married and, after a honeymoon in Ooty, returned to Mumbai. Nisha settled quickly into the rhythms of a city life. She also got lucky: within two months of our marriage, she got a job of a data-entry operator in a firm in Bandra, not far from where we lived.
It was an important break, because in Mumbai, a double income is essential to make ends meet. We did not plan to have any children for a while. So I always used condoms although it was much less pleasurable. Nisha knew that. So once when we were about to make love and I had already torn open the condom packet, Nisha said that it was "safe" and there was nothing to worry. I asked, "Sure?" and she replied, "Sure!"
I flung the unused condom into the wastepaper basket and, for the next week, we made love in this carefree manner. Things were hunky dory, till Nisha missed her periods. Then I knew that things were not cool at all. We went to the gynaecologist who suggested a urine test. Nisha did it and the result was positive. She was pregnant!
I was appalled. I didn't want a child so early in the marriage. I was incensed with Nisha for misjudging the whole thing. A child at this stage was such a bother. We had not even completed a full year of marriage. I had not established myself in my career. So I told Nisha that she should have an abortion. In Mumbai,
it could be safely done in the Marie Stopes abortion clinics. Nisha's eyes widened and then she said a firm "No". I tried to convince her by saying that she was young and we still had a lot of years ahead of us. But Nisha was resolute and determined. We argued a little. I lost my temper. I told her that she had deliberately done this; that she had known it was not a safe time; that she had kept it a secret.
Nisha started crying. I apologised. Then I became angry. This up-and-down mood went on for weeks together, till we were bone-tired by the verbal skirmishes.
I gave in finally.
"Okay, okay," I said, raising my hands, "you win. You can have the baby. I hope you are happy now."
Nisha kissed me. I could see, from the expression in her eyes that she was thrilled that I had finally agreed.
Nisha's mother came in the seventh month. She looked after Nisha and the house. We had a part-time maid who swept and cleaned the floor and washed the clothes. Otherwise, for the most part, my mother-in-law did all the work.
The baby came dutifully and on time, although it was through a Caesarian operation. Nisha's mother left after two months. After that, my mother came for two months and then she left and we were alone once again.
I came back to the present. I noticed that Nisha had finished feeding the baby. She now placed Mary on her back on a plastic mat on the bed.
"Nisha," I said, suddenly getting another idea, "how about sending the baby to Stephen Uncle, my dad's youngest brother in Ernakulam? Do you remember him? He is a teacher in a public school. His wife Rita is a gem of a person. They do not have any children and so, she will not mind looking after Mary."
Nisha buttoned up her housecoat and said, "But isn't Stephen Uncle an alcoholic?"
"He is harmless," I said, "he keeps silent all the time. I don't think he will create a problem. Most of the time, he is out of the house anyway. I could send some money every month for expenses."
"An alcoholic is an alcoholic," Nisha said flatly. "What is the guarantee that the money you send will not be used by him for his drinking?"
"I don't think he has a heart of stone," I said.
"But with an alcoholic," Nisha insisted, "you cannot say for sure. I don't know how I can live away from the baby. It's a tough thing that you are asking from me, Mathew. I will always be thinking of Mary. What is the desperate need for all this? Surely, we are not starving."
"But we are on the edge most of the time," I said, feeling a frustration within me, "besides, a double income is needed to live with some degree of comfort. That's why I suggested this idea in the first place.
"A child is a big responsibility,” I continued. “We have no buffer like parents or relatives, like my cousins have in Kerala. We are alone--the modern, nuclear family. This isolation is too much. Our daily life is so stressful. The long distance travel every day to and from work in overcrowded trains, the stress in the office, the not-so-hot income and now the baby with its problems. Don't you think it is a bit too much?"
"It a lovely feeling to be a mother," Nisha said, her eyes warm with love at she looked at Mary, "I don't feel the pressure that you are feeling so much."
"That's because you are sitting at home all the time," I said, in my most sarcastic tone, "it's me who has to do all the earning for the three of us."
The hurt rose quickly in Nisha's eyes. I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I stood up and walked swiftly to the bathroom.
A month later, on a Sunday evening, the three of us went to the Bandra Bandstand. We sat on a couple of rocks, facing the sea, the only family in a group of amorous couples, who were holding hands and looking into each other's eyes. A stiff sea breeze was blowing. The waves hit the rocks in a splash of spray and a hissing sound. Mary gurgled with joy in Nisha's lap, looking very cute in her small pink dress, her hands bunched up into little fists, a smile on her face, which revealed her gums.
Nisha caressed Mary's hair and said, "The whole of last month, I have been thinking about your suggestion. I know that there are a lot of expenses and your income is not so high. So, maybe we should give the baby away to Stephen Uncle and Rita Aunty. That seems to be the only alternative."
"Really," I exclaimed, "you mean, you agree to the idea. I cannot believe it. This is fantastic, Nisha. It will be for about five years. Five years is really nothing. Time flies so fast these days."
"Don't get over-excited," Nisha said, putting a restraining hand on my shoulder, "we have to ask them whether they do want to look after Mary or not."
"I am sure Rita Aunty will agree," I said confidently, "The only hesitation will come from Stephen Uncle. He may not be ready to take the responsibility, but I will write to them. Let's see what they say."
"It's going to be hard for me," Nisha said, "I am sure of it. After all, no mother would like to stay away from her new-born child."
But I did not feel bad at all. All I experienced was a feeling of freedom. I leaned forward and kissed Nisha's cheek with a loud smack.
"You are crazy," she said, smiling, as she looked around, "what will people think?"
"Everybody is kissing everybody else here,” I said. “So they have no time to think of what others are doing."
That night, I went to a STD booth and spoke to my parents in Kothamangalam about our plans. They did not know what to say. On the one hand, they did not mind. But, on the other hand, my mother wondered whether it was a good thing for Mary to stay away from us, at such an early age. I did not know what to reply to that. Then my mother offered to look after the baby. I quickly said no.
I wrote a letter to Rita Aunty. After a week, a reply came. The tone was enthusiastic and excited. My aunt said that it would be the best thing that could happen to her. She said that she was bored sitting at home, reading magazines and watching TV.
So once again Nisha and I had a long talk, this time on the terrace of the building in which we lived. We finally decided to take Mary to Kerala.
When we arrived with Mary at the house in Ernakulam on a Saturday morning, Stephen Uncle and Rita Aunty were both at home. Stephen Uncle looked older than his 48 years, his hair a mix of grey and black. His eyes were bloodshot. He was dressed casually in a vest and a blue lungi.
My uncle said simply, "How will the baby live in the house of a drunkard?"
"Shoo, shoo," Rita Aunty said, her face reddening at what her husband said, "you keep quiet. There is no problem, Mathew and Nisha. There is no problem at all."
There was a musky smell in the small drawing room. On a small side table, set between two low armchairs, was half a glass of whisky. An empty Charminar cigarette packet lay under the sofa. A shirt hung on a nail on the door while there was a sprinkling of dust on the window-sill.
I suddenly wondered whether my idea was a good one. By glancing sideways at Nisha, I could see that she was also having the same thoughts. But I felt that if I backed off now, it would hurt Rita Aunty.
So I sat down on the sofa, cleared my throat and said, "Stephen Uncle, I will send you six hundred rupees every month for Mary's expenses."
"Oh, she is so cute," said Rita Aunty as she pressed Mary's face to her own pink, unlined face, "how lucky you are, Nisha, to be the mother of this lovely baby. You don't have to worry about Mary. I know that it is difficult to bring up a baby in Mumbai. The servants I heard cannot be trusted. There was a story in the Malayala Manorama recently, of a servant who abducted a baby and the parents had to pay a large ransom, to get the child back."
We left Mary in Ernakulam. Nisha's eyes filled with tears as she hugged Mary and repeatedly kissed her on the forehead. Then we got into the taxi to go back to my parent's house in Kothamangalam.
"Don’t feel depressed Nisha," I said, as the taxi driver pressed on the accelerator, "If it gets too much, you can always take Mary back. Never forget that you have that option always."
"I know that," Nisha said, in a quiet voice, as she wiped her face with a handkerchief, "But I don't know whether I have done the right thing. Only time will tell."
A couple of days later, we took the train back to Mumbai and our life went on as usual. Nisha had another run of luck. One of her former colleagues in the computer firm that she worked in, Anita Talwar, informed Nisha about an opening in another computer firm nearby. Nisha went for the interview and got the job.
The owners of the firm, a pair of Gujarati brothers, were looking specifically for South lndians. They said that South lndians worked hard and did not pose any disciplinary problems.
I began to concentrate on my advertising career. We were once again a honeymooning couple although I made sure that I used a condom all the time.
"I cannot depend upon you to guess your safe periods correctly," I said one night, as I slipped on a gossamer thin, pink, South Korean-make condom, "my experience with you is that when you say it is safe, it is actually very unsafe. You are like the weather forecasters in our country who predict heavy rain and as a result, we have a dry spell."
Nisha laughed as she lifted the blue nightie over her head, and flung it to the floor.
Now and then, letters would come from Rita Aunty detailing the progress of Mary. She calmed us by saying that Stephen Uncle was on his best behaviour. I was not sure whether that statement was true but I gave Rita Aunty the benefit of the doubt.
My parents visited them in Ernakulam. Later, my mother rang me in the office and said that everything was fine. The baby was getting along very well with Rita Aunty and there was no problem at all.
"In fact," my mother added, "there is some life in the house. Before, it used to be so quiet and sad. Now there is always the sound of Mary laughing and crying and making some sort of a noise."
Nisha felt guilty when I told her about this. She said that our house was becoming like Stephen Uncle and Rita Aunty's house before Mary went to live there. She suffered from depressions, especially in the weekends when she did not have the office work to divert her attention. Then she felt listless and tired.
"I miss my child," she would say, in a moaning voice, lying on the bed, tossing from side to side, "I miss Mary so much."
I caressed her face and said, "See, Nisha, if you have to work, you cannot look after Mary at the same time. At some point in time, she has to be left in the care of servants. I think, it is much better to leave Mary in the care of Rita Aunty."
"Yes, yes, I know that," Nisha said, sitting up and wiping her face with one end of the counterpane, "but a mother will always miss her child. I am neglecting my duty, Mathew."
"We will go to Ernakulam this Christmas and see how things are like, with our own eyes," I said, in a calm voice.
Eight months after we dropped Mary, we returned to Ernakulam and we could see immediately that everything was fine. Mary was fine; her face was bonny; her smile charming; her health radiant. Stephen Uncle had changed also; he looked much healthier now. The eyes were no longer red and his handshake was firm.
"All because of Mary," Rita Aunty told us breathlessly, when Stephen Uncle had gone to the bathroom, "he has now cut down on his drinking." That was nice. So, despite experiencing pain at leaving Mary behind, Nisha and I felt that this was the best arrangement.
The years went by. I wanted another child but Nisha said no. She did not want to go through another ‘arrangement’ like we had done with Mary. I didn’t protest too much. Every year, we visited Mary and she would run to us and say Mummy and Daddy. We would take her out for ice creams, to the park, to a few days in Kothamangalam. When she was four years old, she started going to a local school. We were now getting very impatient. We wanted our daughter to come and live with us. We knew that Mary was old enough to come back.
I secured admission for Mary in a kindergarten school in Bandra.
And so, in the fifth year, with excitement, anticipation and with thudding hearts, we went to Ernakulam to collect our child, our daughter, the apple of our eye.
"So Mary," Nisha said in an excited voice, as we sat down in the drawing room, "are you ready to come with your Mummy and Daddy to Mumbai?"
Mary's eyes widened. Then she ran to Rita Aunty sitting on the sofa and exclaimed, "Mummy, Mummy, I don't want to go with them."
It was a sentence that was like a knife stab in our hearts. Nisha’s lips parted a mile, the nostrils widened and she began to breathe through her mouth. As for me, I just could not understand what was happening.
Nisha was staring at Rita Aunty with an expression of fear and anger. She got up from the armchair and advanced towards our daughter but Mary buried her face in the folds of Rita Aunty's saree.
Nisha went down on her haunches, took hold of Mary's hand and pulled her towards her and said, "Baby, I am your mummy."
"No," Mary said, a look of alarm in her brown eyes, as she pulled her hand away from Nisha's grasp, "you are mummy's friend. This is my mummy."
She pointed at Rita Aunty.
Nisha looked accusingly at Rita Aunty.
"I am sorry," she said, putting a hand on our daughter’s shoulders, "perhaps because Mary has lived with me for so many years, I think she feels that I am the mother.”
"But why does she call you mummy?" Nisha said, in a flat tone, "didn’t you tell Mary that I am her mother."
Rita Aunty did not say anything. Instead, she looked at Mary and caressed her hair. My aunt's face had become red with shame and embarrassment and fear.
"I mean," Nisha said, tears welling up in her eyes, "if you had told her clearly that you are not my mother, then Mary would have understood. But I think you allowed her to call you mummy, isn't it?"
Rita Aunty looked up at Nisha and said, "Please forgive me. I love Mary so much. This was the first time in my life that I experienced so much of happiness. She is such a nice girl. She saved my husband's life. I could not bear to lose her."
"But you should have thought of me," Nisha said, a desperate note in her voice, "I am the mother. Can you imagine what pain and guilt I had to go through? Do you know that for a mother, to stay away from her child is one of the cruellest ways to suffer. But Mathew had insisted and I finally agreed. I know now that I have made a big mistake."
"Nisha, please try to understand," Rita Aunty said, holding her hands together, almost as if she was pleading for mercy, "I am grateful to you for giving us Mary to look after. But this happened naturally. Mary was with me from the fifth month onwards. So she developed feelings for me."
"And so, you thought it was better that she call you mummy," Nisha interjected suddenly, "that was a fine way to think."
"Nisha, Nisha," Rita Aunty said, crying, "please take Mary. I will not stop you at all. Please take Mary."
Rita Aunty wiped her face with one end of her saree and said, "Mary, baby, this is your mother. I am not your real mother. I am a relation of your mother. This is your actual mother."
"No," Mary replied, shaking her head from side to side, looking confused and frightened, "you are my mummy. You are my mummy."
Things were at an impasse. Mary looked at me with fear, wondering whether I had come to take her away. I was stunned. I could not understand how all this had happened, because, during our visits, Mary had been sweet and friendly. She had called us Daddy and Mummy without any sort of inhibition. The same thought must have passed through Nisha's mind because she asked, "Mary, you used to call me mummy when I used to come here to visit you. So why don't you call me mummy now?"
"You are not my mummy," Mary said, in a singsong voice, and she looked very sweet in her white skirt and white shoes and with a white ribbon tied around her ponytail, "mummy told me to call you mummy because it was a game we were playing. But you are not my mummy. This is my mummy."
Mary turned and once again buried her face in the lap of Rita Aunty. Nisha looked at me. We went outside and stood on the sidewalk. I could see the pain in Nisha's eyes; the tip of her nose had become red because of her silent crying.
"It is a tragedy, Mathew," she said.
"Not necessarily," I said, trying to be calm, "maybe if we forcibly took Mary away, then after a while, she might forget Rita Aunty."
"I don't know what is the right thing to do," Nisha said, "it is better to ask Stephen Uncle. Let's see what he has to say."
A little later, Stephen Uncle returned from the office and when he heard all what had happened, he shook his head in sorrow.
"You must take Mary," he said, rubbing his forehead, "Although we will miss her. But you are the real parents. I think we should do it when Mary goes to sleep."
We were talking in the garden. Mary came running out and threw herself into Stephen Uncle's arms. He picked her up, looked at us and said, "Have you had tea?"
"Yes," I replied and so he went inside the house with Mary.
"Daddy," we heard Mary say, "when will you take me to the children's park. You promised that you would take me last Saturday but we have not gone yet."
Stephen Uncle said something that we could not hear. But Nisha and I had clearly heard the word, "Daddy." So it was quite clear that, for Mary, her parents were Stephen Uncle and Rita Aunty. I experienced a sick, despairing feeling. This was something that I had least expected to happen. I wished that I could roll back the
years and not have given Mary to Stephen Uncle and Rita Aunty. That night, after Mary had fallen asleep, we carried her into the taxi.
"It will take quite some time for Mary to adjust to you both," Stephen Uncle said honestly, "but she is a lovely girl. I am afraid that without the presence of Mary, I might start drinking too much again. But that is not important. We have to think of the child's future."
I hugged Stephen Uncle and, by this time, tears were flowing down Rita Aunty’s face. Nisha hugged her and said, "I thank you both for looking after Mary so well."
The taxi moved off into the night, our child sleeping comfortably between us on the back seat. For the first time, after so many years, we were a complete family.
But it did not turn out as simple as that. When Mary awoke the next morning and saw that she was with us and not with Stephen Uncle and Rita Aunty, she started crying. She cried and cried.
She just refused to stop crying. Her cheeks became red and swollen. Her eyes also turned red. We tried to cajole her. We gave her sweets. We took her outside
into the garden to divert her attention. We took her for a small walk in the town. But nothing could distract our daughter.
She went on crying and saying, "I want to go back to my mummy and daddy. I want to go back to my mummy and daddy."
So we thought that perhaps this was the first day and maybe, after a few days, she would become all right. But Mary had extraordinary stamina and tenacity. On the seventh day, she was still crying for Rita Aunty and Stephen Uncle; we were getting closer and closer to our departure date to Mumbai. I wondered what would happen if Mary continued to cry like this. I didn't know that her attachment to my uncle and aunt had been so close and so intense.
I began to feel very angry. Her crying got on my nerves. I am a bookish type. I like peace and quiet. There were times when I felt like giving Mary a slap but I managed to restrain myself. That would be a horrendous thing to do.
"This has become a serious problem, Mathew,” my mother said, as we sat in the garden, on the evening of the eighth day, “Mary is very much attached to them. I don't think she is going to change suddenly even if you took her to Mumbai. Not at the present moment."
"What should I do?" I said, feeling confused.
" I know you will not like it, but I think you should return Mary to them," my mother said, pressing her lips together, "At this moment, she will not accept Nisha and you as her parents. Perhaps when she is older and more mature, then everything can be explained to her, but not now. It has been a mistake to give Mary to them in the first place."
Nisha entered the garden just as my mother said this. She gasped and came and sat down on the edge of my chair. I caressed her long black hair. I knew my mother had said the right thing.
"Nisha, I am sorry," my mother said, looking at her daughter-in-law, "but it is a fact. You have lost Mary for the time being. Maybe, the intervals between your visits were too long. Coming once a year, once in eight, nine months. She could not feel a sense of belonging to you both."
" It did not help that Rita Aunty encouraged Mary to call her mummy," Nisha said, her voice angry and hurt, "and that goes for Stephen Uncle also."
"You cannot blame Rita," my mother said, looking like a school teacher with her grey hair tied up in a small bun, "she never guessed that she would develop such an affection for Mary. It was something that happened naturally and over a period of time. For barren women, having a child is a dream come true. So, perhaps, she was the wrong person to give your child to look after. I know, one understands all these things a little too late. We should have realised this five years ago. I offered to look after Mary myself and Mathew said no. Anyway, there is no point talking
about what could have been done. I think Mary should be returned to Stephen and Rita. Stephen has cut down drastically on his drinking. So they are good parents, aren't they?"
Nisha started to cry. I could not see her face because her back was towards me. But I felt the tremor in her body as I continued to stroke her hair. I held her around the waist and said, "Relax Nisha, we can have another child. Five years is nothing. Mary will grow up to be a wonderful person. I am sure when she grows up, she will accept us. It is just a matter of time. Now I think we should listen to what my mother says. We should let Mary stay with Stephen Uncle and Rita Aunty."
From the bedroom, I could hear Mary's wailing once again. She had got up from her afternoon nap. My mother stood up and placed a consoling palm on Nisha's head for a while. Then she went inside the house.
It was finally decided that my mother and I would return Mary to Stephen Uncle and Rita Aunty. Nisha was too distraught to come along.
When we returned to Ernakulam, Stephen Uncle and Rita Aunty did not look happy at all. Mary broke out into a scream of joy as she ran into Rita Aunty's arms.
I told Stephen Uncle that it was not possible for me to drag Mary away from whom she thought were her actual parents. I said that I would continue to send money every month and would they carry on looking after Mary the way they had been doing for so long.
For some time, Stephen Uncle was silent. He stared at the floor; then he stared at me. I could see in his eyes, feelings of gratefulness, happiness and a peculiar type of sorrow. Perhaps he was experiencing a mixed feeling: he was sad for us but happy for Rita Aunty and himself.
"I am very sorry Mathew," he said in a grave voice, "this happened without our even planning it. I admit we made a mistake by not preventing Mary from calling us mummy and daddy. But how could we stop it? It would have confused Mary a lot. At least, that was what I felt at that time."
So that was that. Although inwardly, I did not accept his explanation of why they had allowed Mary to call them mummy and daddy, but what was the point of arguing? It was too late, anyway. My mother and I kissed Mary and left.
Two days later, Nisha and I left for Mumbai, but my wife was in shock. She was quiet and still in the train. She sat by the window, looking out, the pupils not moving, staring into the distance. She seemed to have no thought passing through her mind. But she looked beautiful.
The plaited hair; the doe-shaped eyes rimmed with kaajal, the soft pink lips and a smooth forehead. She had always looked pretty but now in the setting sun of the late evening, her beauty looked austere because of the sadness in her eyes.
I tapped her arm, "Nisha, what are you thinking?"
She seemed not to have heard me. She continued to stare outside the window. The other passengers, thankfully, did not notice anything since we were on the side berths. I felt a terrible uneasiness within myself. I again shook her shoulders and said, "Nisha, Nisha, what are you thinking?"
She looked at me. It was the same unblinking stare. Staring through me, almost as if I was not there. Finally, after what seemed a long time, she fluttered her eyes and I quickly asked, "Nisha what are you thinking?"
I could see that the sentence had got through the fogginess in her mind because once again, her eyes blinked and she said in a whisper, "I have lost my child. That was what I was thinking."
"Of course not," I said, gripping her arm and moving forward, so that my own face was very close to hers, "when Mary grows up, she will come back to us. I am sure of that."
"Mary is already grown up," Nisha said, with a bitter smile, "five years is grown up. She has not come with us and she will not come in the future. So much for your planning, Mathew."
"Nisha, we can have another child," I said, desperate to give my wife some hope, "You are only 29 now. It's not too late. We can try again."
Nisha did not reply. Instead, that unblinking stare came back into her eyes, the pupils steady and almost lifeless. I leaned back into my seat, not knowing what the future was going to be like. I felt a deep sense of guilt within me, at all that had happened; after all, it was I who had mooted the idea in the first place.
But Nisha did not recover from the shock of losing Mary. Within a month, after returning to Mumbai, she had her first mental breakdown. I had to run to a psychiatrist, electric shocks had to be administered, and she had to take a lot of drugs in the form of long, brightly coloured pills.
I fell into a state of panic. I rang up my mother and told her all what had happened. She said that she would come to Mumbai. I said no firmly. I said, she should send Rita Aunty and Mary and my mother-in-law to Bombay. I felt that the sight of Mary might help in the recovery of my wife's health.
But Nisha now had amnesia. The psychiatrist told me that it was partly due to the electric shocks. I thought of suing the psychiatrist, till other psychiatrists that I consulted told me that sometimes, in shock and mental breakdown, the patient suffers from a loss of memory.
Nisha no longer recognised me. She stared at me unblinkingly. Later, when Mary came, Nisha had the same reaction. There was no sign of recognition in her eyes. She did not even recognise her own mother. I gripped Nisha's shoulders and said, with a desperation in my voice, "Nisha, don't you recognise me? I am your husband Mathew!"
She looked at me unblinkingly for a long time. It was unnerving. Then she smiled and said, "I have no husband. I am a spinster."
I held our child in front of her and said, "This is your daughter Mary. Don't you remember her?"
Her answer was the same. Mary looked frightened and her eyes widened in fear as she held Rita Aunty's hand all the time. Her lips were puckered up, as if at any moment, she was going to burst into tears. But somehow, she did not cry. Perhaps the presence of Rita Aunty was the consoling factor. But my aunt had a terribly guilty look in her eyes.
"I am sorry Mathew," she said softly, as we, along with Nisha's mother, stood one evening on the balcony and gazed at the road from our fourth floor flat, "I know that I am the cause of all this. It was my selfishness and the fear of losing Mary that caused all this."
"It's all right," I hurriedly said, although there was a catch in my throat, "you have looked after Mary so well. You gave so much of love. There is no crime in that. By the way, where is Mary?'
"She is sleeping," Rita Aunty said, "she is very frightened."
"That is natural," I said, "she probably has no idea what is happening and why she is being dragged into all this."
"Poor girl," murmured Rita Aunty.
I looked quickly at Rita Aunty. There was a hint of tears in her eyes. She wore a white cotton saree with a green border and her unlined face looked tired and wan. We remained silent, lost in our own thoughts. The only sound was the honk of cars from the road.
Then Rita Aunty said, "How has your mother taken it?"
"She is in some sort of a shock,” I replied.
“She wanted to come along very much, but you said no. Why did you not give permission, Mathew?"
"Because I didn't want her to see Nisha in this condition. As it is, she is not in good health. And if she sees Nisha now, it will make her more ill."
"That's true," Rita Aunty said, staring into the distance.
"Listen Aunty," l said, "we will wait for another week. If Nisha still does not recognise Mary, then you might as well take her back. This is no place for Mary to be, actually."
"Mary has been wanting to go back," Rita Aunty said, as she wiped her eyes with the palms of both her hands.
I did not reply but I felt a jolt of pain when she said that.
A week later, Rita Aunty and Mary returned to Kerala since Nisha had still not recognised them. Nisha was now settling into a regular sort of abnormal behaviour. There were days when she was quiet and near normal. There were also days when she regressed to the age of ten or twelve and then she would giggle a lot. She would also look at me and ask in a child's tone, "Daddy, may I have a glass of water?"
Once in two months, she would become hyperactive. Then she would talk incessantly. She would jump up and down on the bed, start clapping her hands and have several fits of giggling and then she would run to the mirror to put on some lipstick and powder.
She stayed at home all the time. I hired a nurse to look after Nisha during the day. I started to do freelance advertising work on the side, because our day-to-day expenses were so high. The psychiatrist, Dr. Mohan Khatri, told me not to have any more children. Nisha was also never in the mood. I really could not make love to a wax dummy.
So, now and then, I used to make a trip to Grant Road to visit a call girl. Then on photography coordination work for my advertisement agency, I would meet hot, young, ambitious, aspiring models and would spend a torrid afternoon in a friend's empty apartment.
A decade went by. We aged smoothly. I put on weight--there was a tier of fat around my stomach. There was also a touch of grey in my hair. Too much work, l guess, and very little exercise. My advertising career was doing very well. I was now Creative Director of a rather large agency. I had moved to a more spacious
Flat in Bandra; two bedrooms with attached bathrooms; a large drawing cum dining room; a modern kitchen and a long balcony.
Nisha was still the same; rare moments of relentless speech and play followed by long periods of silence. She was thin and gaunt; she had pale, brown, unhealthy bags under her eyes. Her once sparkling long black hair had become dry and brittle and was browning at the edges. Nisha forget Mary completely. Not once in
all these years did she ask about her daughter.
Things had changed in Ernakulam. After Rita Aunty returned to Ernakulam with Mary, she was determined not to hold on to my daughter. So she began to state continuously to Mary that she was not the actual mother, and Stephen Uncle was not her actual father, and that her parents lived in Mumbai.
It took a long time for Mary to accept this. She was in class eight when she wrote her first letter to me. For the first time in my life, the tears came to my eyes, as I read the words, "Dear Papa".
When Mary finished her class ten exams, she came to live with us. She secured admission in the pre-degree course in English literature at St. Xavier's College. Like Nisha, she had long black hair that reached her waist, which she tied in a plait, in typical Kerala style. She had her mother's doe-shaped eyes and a rather lively spirit.
Mary started calling me "Papa" and in the beginning, both she and I felt odd about it. Me, since I have never heard anyone call me papa at all. She, because for so many years, she had been calling Stephen Uncle, Daddy. She was deeply pained to see her mother in the state that she was in.
Most mornings, before going to college, Mary would sit on the bed with her mother's face in her lap. She would caress the face and brush the brittle hair. Nisha would look up with no flicker of recognition in her eyes.
"Mummy," Mary said one day, while I was sitting on the bed and reading a newspaper, "don't you know who I am?"
Nisha shook her head.
"I am your daughter. I am your daughter Mary."
Nisha smiled incomprehensively. She seemed to think that Mary was another nurse hired by me to look after her. Mary looked at me, with a deep sadness in her eyes. I put the newspaper aside and leaned forward and held her face in both my palms and said, "Baby, don't feel sad. There have been cases where the patients have recovered completely. So, hopefully, one day, your mother will also get well."
Honestly, I don't know whether patients have recovered at all. But I had to say something, to soothe my little Mary. I couldn't bear to see her suffer at all.
But as for me, the guilt at what had happened would be a cross that I would have to carry for the rest of my life. Usually, late at night, when everything was still and quiet, I would lie next to Nisha, with my eyes open, waiting for sleep to come. Then slowly, this never-ceasing guilt would rise up in me like a high tide and overwhelm me in waves of regret and remorse.
I would have cracked up a long time but God had blessed me with a strong will and so I managed not to disintegrate. Each time I felt that I would collapse, I would grit my teeth together and whisper to myself: "You've got to get a hold on yourself, Mathew!"
"Life is too precious."
"I must live for the future."
"I must live for my wife and daughter."
This last thought, which I kept repeating, always sent a surging force of life energy through me and slowly I would rise over my black mood and have the courage to face another day.

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