Rajani’s exams may have been over and done with but Abhi’s Class X board exams were still on. Exams were going well and Abhi was upbeat. But Nisha was worried mostly because she didn’t quite have faith in her son’s self-assessment and secondly, she knew no matter how well he did – unless he topped the boards – Suryakant wasn’t going to be pleased. Rajani’s report card drama had been just the dress rehearsal. The main event was still to be staged. Her prayers and fasts became very frequent and earnest. She lost a lot of weight and often wore a hunted expression.
On the day the results declaration, Abhi went with his father to his school. His entire batch had of course turned up, as had many parents. Abhi crowded around the notice boards while parents, mostly hung back. Abhi came out flushed and triumphant. “I came fourth Papa, fourth!” His eyes were shining and he was clearly on top of the world. “Isn’t that great?”
And indeed it was – especially for someone who had throughout his school life been an average student. Even his class teacher was surprised and pleased. “Well done Abhishek! You surpassed our expectations. Congratulations Mr Ahuja,” she smiled at him.
Mr Ahuja nodded politely.
“Aren’t you happy Papa?” Abhi jumped up and down in excitement. He felt on top of the world. “Let’s go home and tell Mom. Poor thing, she must be on a fast.” He laughed.
“You go home. I am going to office. I will drop you by the main road and you can walk home.” He turned on his heel and walked off.
“Papa?” Abhi stared at him. It struck him that perhaps Papa wasn’t as happy as he was. He ran up to him. “Papa?”
“Hmm?” he started the scooter.
“Aren’t you happy?” Abhi asked hesitantly.
Suryakant revved up his scooter impatiently, “Come on hurry up and sit down. I am getting late for office.”
The euphoria and triumph vanished. Dully Abhi sat on the scooter. Myriad emotions assaulted him – hurt, despair, anger, resentment – by the time his father dropped him near his house, he was in a towering rage. He got off without a word while his father too drove off without even a backward glance.
Nisha pushed aside all her household chores and sat in front of her Mandir, praying, pleading, cajoling, begging – Abhi was right she was on a fast, determined to extract a good result for her darling son.
“But Mom,” an exasperated Abhi had exhorted, “the results are already compiled, it just hasn’t been released. How will your prayers and fasts work – it’s all sealed and signed, just delivery is pending.”
“You keep quiet. What do you know? Bhagwanji can do anything. Go away and let me pray.” Please let Abhi do well. Let his father be happy with the results. Please please Bhagwanji let everything be all right. Please let him top his exams. You know his father won’t be happy with anything less than that. Maybe not even then, you know that. Please make everybody happy. I will give 501 rupees puja. I will feed the beggars outside the mandir. Please please Bhagwanji. I wont eat until…
“Mamma, why haven’t they come yet?” Rajani ran inside from her vigil from the gate, “it has been,” she looked at the clock, “more than two hours now.”
Nisha too looked at the clock worriedly. “Maybe the results haven’t been put up yet,” she surmised, “it happens. Come on you have your breakfast.”
“No! I will have after Bhai comes and feeds me sweets. He said he would get me motichoor ka laddoo if he does well. I am sure he has done well,” she said loyally.
“Yes, you can eat that too. But have your breakfast now. You haven’t eaten anything since morning.”
“Neither have you.”
“That’s ok. I am used to it. You are just a baby. Now come on have your breakfast.” Nisha forced the little girl to eat while restlessly looking alternately at the clock and out of the window.
Finally, after about 3 hours or so, Nisha called up her husband’s office, perhaps he had left a message there about being late or something.
“You are in office? You didn’t tell me.” Nisha was taken aback. “What about Abhi’s results?”
“What about them? Didn’t your darling son tell you?” he snapped irritably.
Nisha’s heart sank at the curt cold note in her husband’s voice. “Didn’t,” she cleared her throat, “didn’t he do well?” her voice was faint and sick with apprehension. Rajani clutched her mother in fear. Her heart too sank. “Mamma…” she began fearfully.
“Shush, let me talk Rani,” Nisha snapped, “what happened?” she spoke into the phone.
“Nothing. Didn’t Abhi tell you?”
“Abhi? But Abhi hasn’t come home.”
“What? Abhi hasn’t come home? But I dropped him near the main road more than an hour ago.”
“But… but where is Abhi?” Nisha felt faint. The phone slipped from her hand and she fell down with a thud. “Mammaa!” Suryakant heard Rajani scream. “Rani, what happened,” he called urgently. But there was no answer as the phone swung while Rajani shook her mother, who lay on the floor, her eyes closed and her face deathly pale. “Mammaaaa,” screamed Rajani, “Mammaaaa, please get up, get up!”
Fortunately, the daily help arrived just then. She took in the situation and splashed some cold water on Nisha’s face. She then insisted that Nisha drink some sweetened milk. “Abhi. Let Abhi come. Only then I will eat or drink anything.” Nisha refused even though Rajani created such a racket. “Abhi, Abhi, beta come home, Abhi,” she moaned pitifully.
Rajani had the brainwave of calling her father, “Papa,” she sobbed, “papa please come home. Mamma is going to die and Bhai is also not at home, papa, please.”
“Nobody is going to die Rani. And Abhi will be back soon. Where will he go? I can’t just leave office and go home when I wish.”
“Oh Abhi Abhi, where are you my child, come home,” Nisha had visions of Abhi being crushed under a truck, his lifeless body lying by the road, “Oh Munni, go and see by the main road if there has been an accident or something, Munni please,” she pleaded tearfully.
“I will go Mamma,” Rajani wiped her tears and jumped up, “let me see.”
“No! Rani!” Nisha shrieked, “no! You are not going anywhere. Rani!” Nisha sat up, “Oh that girl, she will be the death of me. Munni run after her, run after her,” she collapsed on the bed.
Munni rushed off. Of course there wasn’t any accident of any sort near the main road. So a relieved Rajani and Munni returned home to reassure Nisha. Rajani made a detour to Shikha’s home bring along a concerned Kirti and a curious Shikha. Munni had informed Nisha that Abhi was in all likelihood hale and hearty for there were no signs or reports of any sort of accidents in the vicinity. Nisha had no sooner heaved a sigh of relief, than another panic attack gripped her. “Oh what if he has been kidnapped? What if…” she wailed and screamed.
“Mamma!” Seeing her mother fall apart, Rajani began crying in earnest. Shikha joined in to give her company. Kirti and Munni had their hands full in trying to control the hysterical gang of three.
“Arre Nishaji please calm down. Nothing would have happened to Abhi. He must have gone off to celebrate with his friends. After all he is a big boy. It’s not easy to kidnap a 17-year old boy, that too from the main road. He must have met some friend and gone off with him I am sure. You know how these boys are, always in their own world. You should eat something. All this fasting is making you weak and nervous. Just look at Rajani, poor thing is traumatized, brother missing, mother falling apart, how can you do this to her, come on Nishaji, pull yourself together.”
Kirti said all this and more but to no avail. “Abhi Abhi, where are you Abhi Abhi come home,” was all Nisha could mumble while Rajani and Shikha sobbed and hiccupped uncontrollably.
Defeated and getting worried about Abhi’s continued absence (it was almost four hours since he had been missing now), Kirti rang up Suryakant, “Sorry to bother you Bhaisahab, but I think you should come home. Nisha is very worried about Abhi who still hasn’t come home and Rajani too is crying…”
“Yes, yes, thank you Mrs Suri,” Suryakant cut in hastily, “I will come home as soon as I can. Sorry to have bothered you. You please go home. Don’t worry about them. I will be home soon, very soon,” he promised.
Relieved Kirti reassured Nisha and informed her that her husband was on the way. Nisha seemed to take heart from that and rallied a bit but she still refused to eat. Kirti reluctantly took her leave for she was expected to visit a relative’s house. Munni too hurriedly finished her work and left. Nisha and Rajani were left alone with their morbid thoughts – actually Nisha was. Rajani was too young to have any morbid thoughts of her own, but her mother shared her worst fears with her little girl, quite oblivious of the impact they could and would have on her tender psyche.
Six hours later, neither Abhi nor Suryakant were home. Both Nisha and Rajani were at the gate keeping a sharp lookout for either of them. Nisha was pale and dry-eyed although tears still rolled down Rajani’s cheeks.
“Mamma,” Rajani hiccupped, “where’s Bhai, where’s Papa?” she asked for the perhaps the hundredth time. “Oh Mamma, do you think Papa has had an accident?” A new worry struck her.
“Oh I am sure your Papa is fine,” Nisha said curtly, working in office probably, she thought bitterly. By now she didn’t care if her son had failed his board exams, she just wanted him safe, in her arms and accordingly her prayers too changed. “Come and eat something,” she roused herself with an effort, “its almost 3 pm.”
“No Mamma, I am not hungry.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Nisha said dully, “it’s time you ate something. You didn’t eat much for breakfast either. Come I will make a sandwich or something for you.”
“I will eat only if you eat Mamma. You didn’t even eat breakfast Mamma.”
Nisha put a hand to her throat, “I couldn’t eat a morsel. I don’t know if Abhi has eaten anything…”
“Then I also won’t eat anything Mamma.”
“Ok ok, I will have a cup of tea maybe,” Nisha put a hand to her head which felt as if it was splitting. Hey Bhagwan what are you punishing us like this for? What have we done to annoy you so much? Please forgive us. Send Abhi back safe and sound. Please Bhagwanji please.
“Cup of tea for me also.”
Nisha sighed. She dragged herself to make two cups of tea, more of milk than tea for Rajani and a couple of sandwiches. Upon Rajani’s insistence, Nisha reluctantly had a sandwich as well. It tasted like sawdust and if it weren’t for the tea, she would have never been able to swallow it.
At around 4 pm, the phone rang. Rajani ran to pick it up. It was Suryakant. “Has Abhi come home?”
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