It had to be a dream. Why else would I come back to this wretched place after all these years? I had no recollection of coming here, nothing on me which would explain this. The only reasoning that came to mind was that I had been drugged.
The house stood just as it did sixteen years ago. I walked through the rooms, doors creaking as I sauntered through. I felt his presence as he walked in.
He looked the same as he did back then, for the most part. Fine lines creased his forehead, the bridge of his nose showed recent scars and he walked towards me with a limp.
“You look tired. Did the journey tire you out?” he asked softly.
“Shyam” I acknowledged. “How did you know I was going to be here?” I started and then involuntarily shuddered. “You brought me here.” It was a statement laced with accusation, not a question. “Why?
“You!” he roared. “You heartless bitch, you let him live, didn’t you?” I took a step back but was too late. He rammed his fingers around my throat. Pain shot through my body, but what pierced me more was the sound of racking sobs. He cried deep from the gut, devoid of emotion.
“Shyam? What is it? Tell me. I am here, right here.” Suddenly I was eighteen again. The barriers had fallen; time had blended the past and the present.
“You should have aborted the baby. But you didn’t. Why?” His tone was accusatory. Not surprising. But I was stunned. How had he found out when no one else knew?
“Why did you let him live?” He yelled, clearly in a raving delirium. “It will kill him, it will kill me”.
“What will? What will, Shyam?”
“You are so soulless. How could you put him through it?”
Crouching in the alley, she risked a peek to the left, terrified that the humungous apparition would materialize again. It was pitch dark save the moon that had intermittently sought refuge behind the clouds. She trained her eyes to recognize moving shapes in the darkness and surveyed her surroundings.
In all the sixteen years of her being, she had not been able to achieve what she had done today. She had stood up for herself, for her abuse ridden, downtrodden mother and helped her escape the throngs of her habit feeders, and that was what mattered. But in the process, six other women had escaped, their attempt attracting unwanted attention. She had ended up infuriating some very powerful people in the beggars ring.
Now, when she felt safe enough, she stepped out of the alley and with nimble footedness, started as fast a sprint as possible. But it wasn’t fast enough. The huge garbage dump truck, all 1800 kilos of it came thundering down at her. While her speed was no match for the trailer, her thin frame and agility helped her manoeuvre turns better than her pursuer. At the far end of the bridge, another waiting automobile picked up at the sound. That there was no way out was a shocking revelation. The empty road yawned out ahead of her and below her, the Cauvery gurgled, the sound of the flowing water soothing her anxious mind. At the last second, she reached over the metal railing and got onto the ledge. Below her, the icy cold water opened up agape, the heavy currents swirling as if waiting to take her in; and she closed her eyes and jumped.
That was me. Eighteen years ago. And that moment, was when I met Shyam.
I remember my hands flailing wildly trying to grab onto life support but coming up with fistfuls of air. I felt a burning sensation at the base of my head as if someone had pulled out tufts of hair.
“How dare you? Don’t you know it’s a punishable offense in this country?” growled a voice standing next to me as I peered up through tear rimmed eyes. The only facet of information that registered in my refuge starved mind where his clothes. He was wearing a police officer’s uniform. From the corner of my eye, I saw 3 more men alight from the van. Reinforcements.
“Arrest her.” he commanded, his tone still irate. A hundred feet away the truck lingered, watching the scene unfold from a distance, unwary of making a move in plain view of policemen.
Exhaustion must have taken over me then because I do not remember getting into the police vehicle. When I came to, I was riding up front, next to him, my hands cuffed to the passenger door handle.
“Where to?” he asked. So I wasn’t being kidnapped by a psycho.
“Umm... Err...” I faltered, dubious at being let go.
“I saw you running.” he said. A simple statement. In the dark of the night, I turned to look at him, curious if he had further questions but he kept his eyes on the road. Maybe they would come later.
“Hmm” I responded. So, that explained how he had landed at the scene, right on time. I didn’t ask him about the arrest charge. For all I knew, he wasn’t even a real policeman. It had been a smart move but I didn’t want to know the truth.
“Stop.” I said. “I live right around the corner.”
“Do you want me to walk you in?” he enquired softly.
“No” I said curtly.
“OK” he said and switched the gear to first, a silent indicator of acceptance.
I climbed down, mumbled a quick ‘Thank you’ and walked into the alley with a confident swagger. A few steps away from his sight, I let my shoulders droop. I stood in the shadows, counting minutes, putting distance between us. Convinced that he was gone, I stepped out again, only to walk right into him.
“Why did you lie?” he asked softly.
“Why do you care? Why the hell you following me?” I yelled.
“Come home with me.” There was no hesitation, no uncomfortable expressions. It wasn’t the first time I had been asked to go home with someone. Many in the ring were beggars by the day and choosers by the night. But I had always steered clear of such individuals.
Life with Shyam was a whirlwind roller coaster of emotions, surprises and learning new ways of life. Our days were like a huge tidal wave. There were peaks of happy days when I would sing to the radio, humming the latest Bollywood songs as Shyam indulged himself in a game of gully-cricket with the local boys outside. And there were crests of depressing days when images of my mother would haunt me incessantly.
We never married. I do not know if it was because the topic just never came up or because we never felt the need to. We understood each other and were compatible in most ways. Marriage would have just complicated everything.
At the other end, Karne continued his attempts to have me killed. I stayed in touch with some of my ‘friends’ who worked in the ring. Acting on alerts from my confidants, Shyam and I moved thrice in the course of eighteen months. From Bengaluru to the little village of Mandya, to the hustling city of Mysore and finally back to the labyrinths of Bengaluru where we could afford to lose ourselves in the multitude of people jostling about. And then I found out I was pregnant.
The realization left me shaken, apprehensive, angry even. I was confused about a lot of things. The first and foremost among them was whether to let Shyam know or not. The feeling of a new life in its nascent stages, taking form within me had not yet registered.
It took another week of arguments and counter-arguments between the righteous angel and the immoral devil on my shoulders and crying bucket loads to finally reach a conclusion that he had to be told. That day, I paced the muddy floor all evening. I would be prompt. Tell him, get it aborted the next day, be done with it. The hands of the clock kept spinning, adding to my misery but there was no sign of him.
Eventually at a quarter past twelve, when Shyam walked in with his customary practice of disconnecting the call as soon as he walked in, my carefully built up temperament evaporated into thin air and I confronted him. The whispers, forced conversations with his ‘friends’ were driving me up the wall. For months, I had been supportive, disconnected even, letting him be, but now I had to know.
“What’s the matter with you?” He asked, irritated.
“I have to know where the money comes from.” I screamed. “Do you sell girls? Or children?”
“Why are you so worked up? Is it that time of the month again?” He asked, very matter-of-factly.
The irony pinched hard.
I waited all of five seconds before I slapped him hard across the face. “I am pregnant. That’s what it is.” The ensuing silence and the look on his face were proof that it had stung. I wondered what stung more though, the slap or the statement. Receding footsteps made me turn around just in time to watch him leave the shack. Well, that proved he was just as least interested in this situation as I was.
Sleep came easily, for the first time in days I felt light, as if a heavy burden had been lifted off my chest. I remember being shaken awake in the dead of the night and I looked up through groggy eyes at Shyam.
“I want you to have the baby.” He whispered softly, his voice a little scratchy. It took me a minute to realize that he had been crying though he was trying to cover it up. I broke down in his arms, vehemently refusing to go through with the pregnancy.
Though our next few mornings were still tension fraught about the future ahead, Shyam still accompanied me to every doctor’s visit. He would disappear for hours at a stretch, citing work and his disapproving stare would silence me from asking more questions. I had started counting down the days, looking forward to a fresh new life in Mandya, away from Karne and his streets, away from the ramshackle of poverty. Life in a village would be easier, cheaper.
But, there was something I needed to do before we left for Mandya. I had to find a way to reach my mother.
I ascended the wooden steps of GH, as we had called it then, the wooden ornate handle felt strange to my touch and reminded me of all the times I had struggled with my mother. I pushed the door open.
Suddenly strong hands grabbed me from behind, unseen monsters manhandling me. The sound of sloshing liquid made me panic and I started thrashing around as best as I could. My world had suddenly gone pitch dark and as I realized I was being pushed into GH I started screaming. The last thing I remember thinking before blacking out was that Karne had finally got to me.
When I came to, I was in one of the upper level rooms of GH. As the hazy cloud hovering over my eyes cleared, I made out a figure in the distance, watching my every move intently. My heart stopped as I realized it was Shyam.
Free from the physical grasp of my unknown assailants, my heart rate had plummeted back to normal. Now, face to face with Shyam, it started a perilous climb again as I contemplated the myriad possibilities that could have led to his being here. The most crucial among them was one that I was unwilling to face as reality. Had Shyam been working for Karne? How could I have missed that?
From the corner of my eye, I sensed the door to the room being shut, locked from the outside, simply through an almost imperceptible nod from Shyam to the men outside. I looked at him, my eyes burning daggers.
He strode toward me, grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me uncontrollably.
“What the hell Kavi? Of all the people in the world, this is the only man you could afford to rub the wrong way?”
“You don’t work for Karne?” I asked, disbelief lacing my question.
“Of course I do. How else would I have known? What if he had gotten someone else to finish you off? You’re lucky I found out about this in time.” He answered.
“How did he find out? Who gave me away?” I asked.
I could sense him sizing me up, checking to see if I would be able to digest the answer or not.
“Who?” I asked vehemently.
“Amma”. He said. The single word knocked the wind out of me.
My mother had given me up. I couldn’t respond. The greying walls of the room closed in on me and claustrophobia hit me full force and I collapsed.
The walls of the clinic I woke up in, felt as bare as my life. I could see Shyam and a doctor deep in conversation a few feet away. Bits and pieces of their conversation floated toward me. The grave looks they exchanged as I walked over to them did nothing to soothe my jumpy nerves. I pulled out the empty rusty framed chair next to Shyam’s and settled in, facing the ageing doctor.
“Teratogens are things which could cause abnormal cell masses during fetal growth. They could cause physical defects in the foetus.” He said.
“Why are you telling us that?” Shyam asked, unable to contain himself.
“Chloroform is a teratogen. Plus, the way you both have described the attack, it tells me you might have also been deprived of oxygen for a few minutes.”
I had zoned out at the initial words ‘physical defects in the fetus’ itself and only fragments of his further statements registered in my comfort-starved brain. My mother’s betrayal and the doctor’s statements kept bouncing around in my head until I could take it no more. Shyam came running after me as I walked out the hospital, trying to get me to calm down, to talk sense into me.
“What if he’s not born normal Kavi?” He screamed into my ears even though they felt like he was standing far away, at the end of a tunnel. “I would never forgive myself. Why couldn’t you tell me about Karne? I would have taken care of everything right from the start.”
Shyam’s well meaning questions were driving me over the edge. How could Shyam not even consider the possibility that the baby would be born normal? Why was he suddenly so hell bent on getting rid of the baby? Was there a way to rewind life and do it all over again? I had to get away. From Shyam, from my mother, from Karne, from the doctor, from this whole situation. And that was when I had decided to bolt.
Now sixteen years later, in the same GH, here was Shyam asking me why I had not aborted the baby. How could I tell him that I had been run over by vengeance, a feeling so powerful that it had overpowered every sane thought that had crossed my mind? How could I tell him that I had had the baby simply because I had wanted to prove to my mother that I could do it on my own, even though she had sold me out? Not once had my decision been selfless, not once had I thought in the best interests of the child. And then, once he was born, how I had finally fallen in love with the tiny little thing?
“... is here too.” Shyam’s voice drew me out of my reverie.
“Who is?” I asked, disoriented.
“Samar.” My breath caught on the name as I felt my fears coming true. Would Shyam pose a threat to my baby? Would he try to harm Samar? I had always shielded Samar from my past, not telling him much about life on the streets. Was this how Samar was destined to meet his father?
As I heard Shyam’s voice say ‘Bring him in’, I realized that he wasn’t talking to me but to someone standing behind me, someone who had been awfully silent all this time.
“I know who you are.” We swirled around at Samar’s voice coming from the end of the room. Looking at him now, my chest swelled with pride at the way he had turned out. Samar had been born a healthy baby. From the time he had been born, I had lost myself in that tiny little frame, devoting every waking moment to his needs. Growing up, he had been my escape route from the harsh realities surrounding us. Through Samar, I had learned to forgive my mother, accept my decisions and move on.
For the first time in their fourteen years of having unknowingly shared a relationship, father and son stood across from each other in an ultimate face off, uncomfortable in their new roles. I looked at Samar, the way he was trying to digest all of the new information, calm and composed. Maybe the volcano would erupt later, but it could be dealt with. Did I owe him a future with his father? I looked at Shyam, the concern and love of a father clearly reflecting in his eyes. He had been denied this love for fourteen years. Did he merit more trust?
Why had we been thrust together after all these years? What was He trying to convey? Did we deserve a second chance? In the distance, the rays of dawn started to spread across the horizon signifying the onset of a new day.