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The subsequent days, Aishani worked from home trying to finish as much work as possible. Sometimes she called her associates for meetings or collaborative work. Although she did not show it, she now looked forward to Shikhar coming back in the evenings and pampering her.However, once she was done with the day’s work, evenings became hard to spend. She tried to call Om a couple times but stopped short of dialling his number. She spent each night going over their interactions since the day they had met and fell asleep thinking about the things he had said to her.
It was Friday around eleven a.m. when Shikhar’s phone rang. He was in his office, done with the day’s work and waiting for that very phone call.”Yes, I got the direction. I’ll be there in about forty five minutes if the traffic is heavy, less if not. See you Om.”
When Shikhar reached his destination he saw Om standing at the entrance looking at his phone. Shikhar loved the place. It was a moderate sized eatery with open air seating. Shikhar walked up to Om and said hi. “You could have waited inside. You did not have to stand here.”
“I don’t mind and I did not want any confusion with us looking for each other. Let’s go in. I reserved a table although it wasn’t necessary. The place isn’t crowded at this time. More of an evening destination for most people. That’s one reason why I chose it.”
They went in and sat at their table. It over looked a small artificial lake with some boats floating in it. The weather was pleasant with a gentle breeze blowing. Oversized umbrellas at each table ensured that the place was comfortable. Knowing the kind of conversation they were going to have, neither was in a mood to eat much; so they ordered some light snacks and shakes.
After talking about some general topics related to business and the gallery, Shikhar decided it was best to come to the main issue at hand. “Might as well talk about it Om.” He said looking seriously at his glass that he rotated nervously. ” I have never verbalized this in front of anyone so it might get hard for me. It’s also a long story.”
“I am not in any hurry Shikhar. And I’ll be a patient listener. I promise. Today, I have nothing to say. I just want to listen and understand.”
Shikhar nodded as he looked at Om gratefully. ” What is your earliest memory Om?” he asked.
Surprised by his question Om tried to think hard. He closed his eyes and scanned the deepest layers and farthest corners of his conscious and sub-concious. He saw an image and smiled.” I am playing with Shivaay and Dadi and Mom are clapping and cheering. Can’t remember who they are cheering for but I am very happy.” Om opened his eyes. The memory refreshed him.
Shikhar smiled. ” Mine is being fascinated by my mom’s baby bump and talking to it. I don’t remember what I used to say but I remember patting my mom’s belly, and I was told later that I used to ask the unborn baby if it was a brother or a sister. I remember placing my palms on her belly and feeling the baby kick and move as I giggled. That is a distinct memory.”
I was four and a half when my mom came back home from the hospital. She was not well and my aaya who was a maid from my mom’s parent’s home, carried the baby as they walked in. My mom kissed me tenderly shedding tears and petting me like she always did and then went to her room to rest. My aaya asked me to sit on the sofa and placed the baby in my lap. She told me God had sent me a sister and I nodded nervously looking at the wailing creature in my lap. I didn’t know what to do so I held her tiny doll like hand and spoke to her. She stopped crying at the sound of my voice. And that’s how I became the official baby-crying stopper in my house.”
“Aishani won’t stop crying. Call Shikhar. Aishani is being fussy, won’t eat, call Shikhar. Aishani is throwing a tantrum again, call Shikhar.” Those were the first few years of Aashi’s life and my first few memories are full of her. As I grew older I understood that my parents did not get along at all. From their fights, and what I heard my aaya and my mom talk, this is what I gathered: My parents had an arranged marriage. My mom was from a reasonably well to do family and my dad from an extremely affluent one. My dad’s household was patriarchal and orthodox while my mom, an only child, came from a very progressive and open background. She was cheerful, simple, and beautiful. My dad was haughty, chauvinistic, and had a soft corner for high society women. His mother though wanted the women of her household to stick to the parameters of strict Indian tradition. It was a match made in hell and my mother slowly and steadily went insane in that hell.
Dad loved me. Everyone loved me because I was his heir, I looked like him, I did very well in school and due to my very early sense of responsibility towards Aashi, I always followed rules and rarely got in any trouble in school or at home. I had inherited my dad’s looks and my mom’s sense of humor and free spirit. Aashi was a replica of mom, inside out. By the time Aashi was six or seven, things had gotten really bad at home. Both my grandparents, on both sides, had passed away, and dad had started to bring home friends of questionable character which included women. Mom, who really had no love for him, felt insulted nonetheless and they had vicious battles that terrified the hell out of me and Aashi. So at such instances, to shield her, I would shut her and me in my room and entertain her endlessly till she laughed like a crazy person and forgot the outside world.
After one such battle right in front of some “friend” he had brought home, seeing my mother upset and crying, Aashi in her fierce spirit, went to the living room, walked up to my dad who was sitting on the sofa drinking, and slapped him as hard as she could. That was the first time she got beaten by him. I was about twelve then and knew for sure that I hated my dad. Mom on the other hand had found her weapon to destroy dad. She fed in Aashi all the qualities and characteristics that she knew dad hated in her. Total abandonment, lack of care for conventions, defiance of authority, and utter pigheadedness. I realized much later that other than a basic motherly concern, mom really had no affection for Aashi as she had been an unwanted child the result of an accident. I was her firstborn so all her love was reserved for me. Aashi sensed this and she also sensed that whenever she fought with dad, she got affection from mom as a treat for a job well done. I could understand what mom was doing but Ashi just craved for love and did what she could to get it. In all this insanity, the only thing that kept her normal was school, a couple of friends, and my presence as a brother, a friend, and a surrogate father figure. I was terrified that with my mom’s egging on Aashi was going to land into some serious trouble and I devoted my entire childhood and teenage to ensuring that she had at least one person who had just her well-being and happiness in mind. I grew up well before my time and that showed it’s effect later on.
Dad was still very good to me and showered me with expensive gifts, cash, and favors every time I excelled at anything. I would try to handover every thing that I possibly could to Aashi so that she wouldn’t resent me and alienate herself from me. Unnecessary to say Om, I became her everything. Her mom, her dad, her friend, her brother, her sanctuary. As I grew older, she grew bolder as she was confident that I would always protect her. Which I did fiercely. But deep inside, I also felt restless at having to take so much responsibility at such a young age. As adolescence kicked in, this restlessness grew but I suppressed it as there really was no one in this world whom I loved more than my sister.
By the time I was sixteen or seventeen, I found out about the scope for higher studies abroad, scholarships, and the great prospects of that. Teachers encouraged me to explore the opportunity
since I was doing so well academically and otherwise. Unknown to anyone at home, I started to prepare. I told myself that I was just testing myself to see how well I could do. But then, I took the necessary exams, got top scores in them, sent in my application packets, did very well in my board exams, and was accepted with full scholarship to an acclaimed U.S. university to study architecture, which is what I had wanted to do. I broke the news at home. My dad was proud and jubilant, mom was depressed at the thought of my leaving but showed happiness for me, and Aashi…With tearful eyes she hugged me and said “I always knew my bhaiya was the best at everything. I am so happy for you.” That day I realized how much she loved me. I knew how alone she was going to be if I left and yet she was expressing happiness for me.” Shikhar wiped his eyes.
Om who had been listening spellbound and crying too, wiped his own tears and passed a glass of water to Shikhar. Shikhar drank some water, took a deep breath, and started again.
“We sat and cried together that night. I was eighteen and she was a young woman of fourteen. I say woman because she had matured beyond her years too and had grown to be a very balanced, intelligent, and sensitive young woman. She also knew the stark reality… that besides me…no one really cared about her. I asked her if I should decline my admission and not go. I told her I would do so if she wanted me to. And she said that that would ruin our relationship. That it would bring resentment and bitterness between us and that she could face everything except not being loved by me anymore. She assured me that I had made her strong enough to face life. That if I really wanted her happiness, I would go and pursue my dreams. I was thankful, and excited for my bright future. I could sense the gloom inside her but I chose to look at the happiness on her face. I decided to think only about myself for once.”
” When the time came for it, I bid goodbye, asked aaya maasi to look after Aashi, told Aashi that I would call often and visit when I could given the constraints of school and visa terms, shook hands with my dad and asked him to stay away from Aashi and mom, and ignoring the sinister glint in his eyes I went chasing the stars in my own. It was a brand new world that greeted me Om. The culture shock, then learning the ropes of the system, incredible load of studies, a plethora of extra-curriculars to choose from, and a state of the art recreational facility with a variety of health and fitness programs and sports. I was in heaven!
Relishing my new, fresh, and open environment I worked hard and gave my academics, my extra-curriculars, and my fitness my two hundred percent. Discipline and dedication had always been my strong points and they paid off big time. During my third year at the university I was offered a summer internship at the top architectural firm in the city. I had decided to visit Mumbai at that time especially because I knew that mom had been keeping unwell for while. But owing to the internship opportunity which was really a big deal and would affect my overall grades, mom and Aashi, both advised me to not let it go, things were OK at home and I could always visit the following year. I remember discussing it with Aashi at length. I now feel that I chose to deal with the pain in her voice that only I could sense, with denial.
She was doing very well in school and was one of the top ten students in her entire grade level. I figured she must be working hard and circumstances must be relatively quiet at home. What I did not know and that aaya maasi told me much later was that she was doing well in spite of the circumstances which included regular verbal abuse and occasional hitting from my dad and complete abandonment from my mom who had become an alcoholic. That was the reason why she was “too sick to talk” most of the time when I called. She was so ashamed of the way she had handled her problems and dealt with Aashi’s life that she had chosen avoidance and denial to cope and did not want to face me in her wasted state.
Om’s eyes were blood-shot and his fists clenched as he quietly listened.
I finally visited during the last year of undergrad and was faced with the harsh reality. Mom had passed away a few months ago battling the last stage of cancer ; dad had bullied Aashi and aaya maasi to tell me nothing about it. Aashi was now a beautiful grown woman, incredibly strong and holding her head up high. She greeted me with a wide smile and brimming eyes. But her tears stayed in her eyes. They did not roll down. I sensed a hardness in her. I thought it was because she was no more a kid. Together we grieved mom’s passing away.She talked to me about her wish to go to interior design school. Dad was opposed to it as he wanted her to do something conventional. I fought with him and got her application forms to one of the most reputed schools here. I requested for special permission to file the forms early and was granted it as this was a private school and my dad’s influence came in handy.
I had been offered a six-figure salary at the the firm where I had done internships for two summers. I told Aashi that if I took this job, I would make enough money in a year to open my own firm here by myself and she could handle the interior design department once she had her degree. I would also send her money directly to her account so that she wouldn’t be dependent on dad for anything. She said she was thrilled with the idea and encouraged me to take up the job. And I left her here again.
Aashi did reasonably well in her board exams, got admitted into the design school. She shared her happiness with me and I was thrilled for her. I thought now she was an adult, going to a professional school, and she would be much better off than before. How wrong I was!
Six months into my job, my company asked me to pursue and offered to sponsor an MBA program for me if I signed a bond of working with them for four years. I deliberated it carefully. It would have really catapulted my career. I signed the bond without telling Aashi about it. The guilt ate me night and day and so I became defiant. I told myself that I had worked hard for that success and I deserved all of it. She was anyway much better off now that she was an adult, and I would go back after I had worked for four years. Maybe I would figure out a way for Aashi to join me and we could bid goodbye to that hell forever.
When I didn’t come back after completing the first year of my job Aashi brought up the topic. I told her that I was working full time, was doing a full time MBA simultaneously, and had signed a bond. She was stunned that I had chosen to hide this from her. “Why didn’t you share it with me bhaiya?” she asked.
“What was there to share? The company demanded this, it’s once in a lifetime opportunity, I took it and am slogging hard here, not partying Aashi.” I told her defensively.
“When did I say you were partying? I am just hurt that you did not share this with me.”
My guilt took over my good sense, ” You are being oversensitive Aashi. We are not kids anymore. I don’t expect you to share each and everything about your life with me and I can’t share each and every thing about my life with you.” Even as I spoke those words I felt aghast at what I was saying but the words were out of my mouth. She didn’t say anything after that.
We spoke less frequently after that instance. I was nervous about it but I was so stressed with work and my MBA requirements that my nights and days were both a complete frenzy.
I was at the end of my MBA program when Aashi called me one day and told me that dad had fired Aaya maasi over a big fight. She asked me to please come back home immediately as things were getting hard to manage. I asked her what was wrong other than the usual stuff. She couldn’t speak it out and just kept saying, “bhaiya, please come back. Please. I can’t explain over the phone. I need you desperately.”
I had spent the entire day working and was looking at about four hours of homework and assignments. I got irritated. ” Aashi, that’s how it’s been all my life. You have always desperately needed me. I took care when you were a baby and a child. But now you are a grown woman going to a professional school. I send you money every month. I have a life of my own Aashi. I can’t spend my entire life worrying about you.” The words were out before I could stop them. There was a silence on her side. Then she hung up. I was a nervous wreck. I tried to call her back but she wouldn’t pick up the phone. I somehow took the very last of my courses and my finals over the next month. She had stopped talking to me altogether and I was terrified. As soon as I had handed over my last exam, I flew back to Mumbai.”
Shikhar’s face was very pale now. Om was afraid he was going to be sick but Shikhar signalled that he was ok. He drank another glass of water. Then with perceptible effort he spoke again,
“It was late evening when I reached home. I rang the doorbell and a stranger opened the door. It was a new servant. I shoved him aside and went in. I left my luggage in the living room and ran upstairs to Aashi’s room. It was locked from inside. I knocked. There was no answer. I banged hard and yet there was no answer. I shouted her name and asked her to open the damned door. Then with three or four vigorous jerks I pushed it open. The sight that met me is still burnt in my brain and comes back to haunt me randomly any time during the day and at night. Aashi, sat crouching in a corner, terrified, and whimpering. Her face had a big angry bruise on it. She was stunned to see me and her first reaction was to run up to me and hug me tightly. I asked her what had happened. Between her sobs she told me that the friends dad got home for his so called parties sometimes tried to be indecent with her. When she complained about it to dad he refused to believe her and said that she herself must have done something to attract their attention as she was characterless like her mother. That evening when she had protested, Dad had beaten her again.
I lost it and went downstairs to find dad. He was sitting in the bar he had so fondly built for his parties. A friend was sitting with him. My dad was astonished to see me there all of a sudden. He was completely drunk and tried to hug me. I pushed him away and told the other man to leave immediately. Looking at my furious expression the guy literally fled. I then questioned dad about Aashi and what he had done to her. He said, “She is a s**t like her mom and makes up stories so I taught her good lesson.”
I felt a fuse in my brain blow away. Om , do you know what it feels like to kill your own father?”
Om was trembling with fury. He recalled his own past but he controlled himself. He just looked at Shikhar waiting for him to continue.
“Om, with this very hand I slapped the man hard across his face. He was completely taken aback. Before he could speak another indecent word about my baby I slapped him again. Now he looked scared and I felt slightly better. So I slapped him yet again. I had no words to say to him. He just kept running away from me and I went after him and kept slapping him. He shouted and whimpered completely shattered at being humiliated like that and extremely scared of me. Then he looked at the staircase and shook violently. As I walked back upstairs I saw Aashi standing at the top of the staircase, looking at me shocked.”
We left that house the very next day. We stayed at a hotel for a week until I could manage to find an apartment through a friend. I called my company and told them about my extenuating circumstances. My boss, who was very fond of me, was very supportive through that period. He managed my severance and relaxed my penalty for breaking the bond by quitting that job; a few close friends packed and shipped my clothes and other essentials.
The first month I just tried to be with her constantly. She on the other hand refused to speak to me. She took her final exams eventually and I was able to find a job here. I had earned a lot of money in my roughly two years of working in the U.S. I had saved well as I had no luxurious habits and very few needs. A small percentage of my earnings went towards paying the penalty for breaking the terms of the bond. With what was left, within six months I started my own firm here. Aashi had graduated with a reasonably good result. She was completely indifferent to me and wouldn’t communicate with me at all. I enrolled her in therapy because I wanted her to talk to someone. She resisted it furiously at first but then I think, finding the therapist soothing she accepted it. I started up the interiors branch for her. She slowly started coming to office. Once she started to work her transformation was quick. She drowned all her pain in her work and it soon paid off. Her work brought her appreciation and recognition and she slowly emerged as a confident professional. She took an additional course in basics of architecture to widen her expertise and did very well in that. With therapy she started to communicate with me even if it was in the coldest and most indifferent way. The rest is in front of you.”
Om looked at Shikhar’s exhausted face. “What happened to your dad?”
Shikhar had a blank expression. “After we got our current home built two years ago he came to see us a few times and each time I threw him out. I never let him meet Aashi again. Last year he passed away from a heart attack. I went and did his last rites, sold the house of horrors, and donated all the money from it to a charity for oppressed women and children.”
Om looked at Shikhar with immense respect. The two sat there, completely drained emotionally. “Shikhar, let’s postpone the gallery viewing.” Om said.
Shikhar shook his head. ” No. I want to do it. It will distract me from having relived the nightmare. I am grateful for it though as speaking about it finally is therapeutic. If I visit the gallery for an overview, I’ll be able to look normal when I go home. Besides, she will expect me to have visited the gallery today. Do you know that she actually looks happy now. Her therapist wanted her to voice all her anger against me to heal completely as that was her biggest pain. She finally did it the day I brought her back from your house. And she hugged me again. It’s all because of you and your family Om.” Shikhar wiped his eyes.
Om felt as if his heart was going to explode. ” No, it’s because your love and persistence finally got through to her. And maybe my love and persistence got through to her too.” Om was taken aback at his own words as Shikhar looked on shocked. Then Om’s face became calm again.
“We have had similar experiences Shikhar except that mine were nothing compared to yours. Except my dad I had a full loving family by and large. Yet for a brief period, I chose to soothe my pain with drugs. I was nowhere as strong as Aashi. If it hadn’t been for Shivaay, I would have died. I kept trying to figure out why I got this uncanny feeling when I saw her and why did the pain in her eyes look so familiar. It was because I went through a similar pain and desolation and saw my mother drown herself in alcohol due to my dad’s repeated infidelity. In my case though, my parents do love each other and in the end our family got its happy ending. But now I understand why I could sense her mood, her pain, her nervousness. I felt a connection with her and this is the reason why. I do love her Shikhar but I need to think what that means before I say anything to her. ” Om said with complete earnestness.
Soon they were at the gallery space where Shikhar went through Aishani’s notes while he looked at the space and gave Om a brief feedback. Once done they went to their respective cars.
“See you tomorrow at the hospital. Don’t tell her I am coming. I’ll give her a surprise.” Om said.
Shikhar looked at him puzzled.
“She has follow up appointment at noon tomorrow, remember?”
“Yes?” Shikhar noddded.
“I’ll be there. Just don’t tell her.” Om said smiling a little.
Shikhar nodded smiling back and then both left for their respective homes.
Thanks for reading Everyone. This was an exhausting chapter to write so there may be a few mistakes. Sorry about that. I know this is a heavy and tedious chapter with nothing pleasant. But that is the demand of this storyline so please bear with it. Things will get better here onwards. I leave the fruit of my effort for you to accept. Please comment if you can.?