‘Aarti, dinner is ready. We are all waiting at the table’, Anita called out for the fourth time. ‘Yes mom, I am almost there’, Aarti shouted back. Ten minutes for that episode of Game of Thrones to end. Aarti could not possibly leave it at the climax; Joffrey was dying. It was the most satisfying moment that television has ever given her. How could she leave the show for anything in this world; food was way below in her priority list anyway. The show ended and with happy tears, she left for the dining room. Much like every day, everyone was done with their food by the time she arrived.
‘How’re you feeling now, Daddy’, she asked throwing a cursory glance at him and started nibbling away on her food. ‘I am fine, dear’, Ashok replied, just the way he replied everyday no matter how excrutiating the pain was. He knew that the questions were a formal exchange of words that her daughter found time to utter in the midst of her board examinations, friends and Facebook. He knew that his health was far behind in her list of priorities. He did not blame her, it was a hectic schedule she had; school, then coaching classes, then self-study. Where was the time? His sickness was nothing new to them after all. Over the years of prolonged illness, the family had gotten used to it. However, they were not completely immune to the grief. Tears were still shed every time they held the medical report with trembling hands in which at least one vital health parameter was shot way above the normal range. However, somehow the grief had become an ordinary affair for them, especially for Aarti. She could not recall the last time he was healthy. She grew up seeing her dad take some ten different coloured pills during lunch every day. From the age when they seemed amusing to her to the age when she could understand the graveness of the situation; somewhere in between she learnt how to feel pain most deeply and to let it go of as easily.
‘Aarti, Aarti’, Ashok shouted on one of the usual days. She was in the middle of her novel. She hated it when somebody interrupted her when she was reading. ‘Why can he not call mom or the helper for that matter? Why me? I’m sure it’s some trivial work which anyone could have done’, she thought to her herself as she stormed out of her room in utter frustration.
‘What happened dad, why did you call?’ she asked trying to moderate her voice so that it doesn’t come out as rude. ‘Honey, I want to watch the Television, can you please get the remote for me? I feel too tired to get up.’ She handed him the remote and was about to leave when he stopped her, ‘Can you not sit here by me. You’re always engrossed in your own world. I feel lonely sitting in the room all by myself. You never have time for me’, he managed to let it out. ‘Yeah…okay, I’ll just get my book and come’, Aarti said. She sat there next to him for the next one hour, lost in her book smiling away at the adventures that the protagonist of the story went through, oblivious to the fact that someone sitting next to her was yearning for a conversation with her. She kept flipping the pages and at 4 PM, she got her dad his medicines and kissed him goodbye as she left for her coaching classes.
Sometimes in the middle of the night when she would be working on her Mathematics problems or browsing through Facebook and liking all the pictures of this insanely cute guy she had given away her sixteen year old heart to, her dad would come with his coffee mug and sit by her table. She would hate those interruptions at that time, she had to change the tabs and pretend to be going through some educational websites. It was one of those days.
‘Why do you stay up till so late, dad? It’s not good for your health. You should be sleeping by now’, Aarti said in an emotional mix of concern and botheration.
‘I don’t get enough sleep these days. I feel there is no purpose of my life. I am just surviving each day’, Ashok said.
Aarti- ‘Please stop worrying about the purpose of your life. You’ve lived the majority of your life giving back to the society, now is the time to sit back and enjoy. You have played your role brilliantly till now. The school which you started is well established now. It will provide education to millions of students and positively impact thousands of lives each year.Travel the world, enjoy great food, read books and help me in discovering the purpose of my life maybe; stop being too hard on yourself dad.’
Ashok- ‘Yeah dear…I just feel empty sometimes, like I’m not needed anymore.’
‘Coz no-one told you it’s gonna be this way...’, Aarti ‘s phone started ringing. ‘Anjali calling’, it said.
Aarti- ‘Dad will you excuse me for some time. I’ll just take this call and come.’
Ashok- ‘Yeah, sure honey’
The conversation started with how Sameer has been acting strange since the past few days and was giving disinterested, curt replies to Anjali’s messages. It grew with how there were only three months left for the Board examinations and whether Aarti could solve problem fifteen of circle geometry. Apparently, Aarti could and then she started explaining the details of the tangents and radii to her. They ended on a note that they must finish the syllabus in the coming week and start with their revisions as soon as possible.
The phone call consumed some thirty minutes of her time. She realized that she was having a conversation with her dad and rushed to her room to check if he was still there. To her surprise, he was there perfunctorily scanning the pages of ‘An Argumentative Indian’.
Aarti- ‘Hey dad, how are you feeling now?’
Ashok- ‘I feel okay. I think you should sleep. It’s 2:30. I think I will go and make myself a cup of tea.’
Aarti- ‘You should sleep too. It is 2:30 for you too, you know.’
Ashok- ‘I will sleep in a while. I feel like staying up for some reading.’
Having said that Ashok left for the kitchen staggering painfully with each step that he took. The operation for the pelvic fracture was clearly not undertaken properly. The tea took a few minutes to boil; the water gradually swelled up and reached a peak only to crash down when the gas was turned off. He saw the essence of his entire life in that; rising up with passion, reaching the maxima and gradually falling down only to crash down completely when Lord would choose to turn off the gas. He could that feel the end was near, waiting for him to wrap up his roles before he could bid a goodbye. It was probably waiting for him to finish some conversations, conversations he yearned to have.
Aarti did sense some unsaid words that her dad probably wanted to say. Something told her that he was not really interested in reading that book, he probably wanted to have a conversation with her. However, too fatigued with the day’s work, she pushed the thought away and chose sleep over walking over to the living room and engaging in a conversation.
She curled up in her quilt and dozed off. Five minutes later, the phone beeped rather loudly. ‘There? :) ’, the WhatsApp message read. The name on the screen sent a chill down her spine and trashed sleep out of her system altogether. She took no time to respond, ‘Hey, yes. What’s up?’ and the exchange of messages continued till she no longer had the strength to keep her eyes open.
The pre-board results were out. She topped the class again. Ashok could not attend the parent teacher meeting as usual because his health did not allow him. Anita exchanged the usual pleasantries with the class teacher who told her how brilliant a student Aarti was and how she must be a proud mother. Anita was certainly a proud mother. She treated Aarti at one of her favourite restaurants that afternoon and told her that she was an amazing daughter.
Content with her results, Aarti returned home. Back home it was rather gloomy, her dad’s medical reports had been consistently poor. Funny thing how circumstances make you capable of feeling ten different emotions in a single day and surprisingly you do justice to those emotions. From being elated to being melancholic, she sometimes wondered how it was possible for one person to feel such divergent emotions all at the same time.
‘Congratulations love, you’re my darling. Like father, like daughter. You always make me proud’, Ashok was beaming with happiness
Aarti- ‘How is your health now, dad?’
Ashok- ‘It gets better the moment I see you, love. I’ll cook the best butter chicken in the world for my darling today.’
Aarti- ‘No, I think you should rest. The cook will take care of the food. Also, I have dinner plans with my friends tonight. This is our last get-together before Boards. I have to go.’
Ashok- ‘Oh, okay dear.’
Aarti- ‘Bye dad, take care. I’ll go and get ready. I love you.’
Ashok did not say bye. He probably did not want her to go. Those conversations were still lying within him, waiting to unfurl someday. That day was taking too long to come. He was not sure if he had that much time.
Days passed by and Aarti got busier with her preparations. The little time that she got now and then was spent over the phone discussing either Sameer or Aditya and asking/answering, ‘How much done?’ questions. Results came out and she scored outstandingly in all her papers. Life had been rewarding on the academic side.
Class eleventh happened and seventeen is the kind of age when friends become family. Somehow our world starts revolving around them. Yes, Aarti did blame the age sometimes. ‘Teenage knocks all senses out of you’, she sometimes consoles herself with that statement. With the board pressure out of her shoulders, the starting months of class eleventh were all about partying, get-togethers and dating. Somewhere amidst all the fun, family took a back-seat for her. No, she was not one of those spoiled girls; she just was not a great daughter, not even a good daughter. A good person maybe, but not a good daughter.
She was in the movie hall, lost intently in the movie when her phone started ringing. She put it on silent mode and kept it away. When she got out of the hall, much to her shock the phone read, ’Ma - 45 missed calls.’ A small part of her knew what those missed calls meant, but every other part refused to accept it. With trembling hands, she called back her mother. ‘Aarti, come home; just come home right now. Please come home’, Anita managed to speak amidst the wailing. Aarti did not ask her what happened. She knew what had happened.----------------
‘Girls aren’t allowed to go to the funeral pyre’, they said. She turned a deaf ear to them and kept walking ahead. With every tear that fell, she remembered those missed conversations and wondered what they could have been about. Every scene flashed in front of her eyes. Every day when she could have had those conversations which he was taking back with him kept coming back to her. It was pinching her conscience every second and screaming out loud to her about how she failed to be there for him.
She did not cry. ‘Such a strong girl’, they said. She knew that she was not strong. She did not cry because she wanted to keep the pain within her. Crying might have relieved the pain. She wanted to go through it each day and remind herself about how terrible a daughter she was. It was her idea of penance. Some actions are not worth forgetting and forgiving. She did not forgive herself. The regret and pain was for a lifetime and deservedly so.