Sherry had no recollection of his father; apparently he had been just about a year old when his mother had separated, preferring to live alone in Delhi with him rather than with her parents in a small village near Udaipur. Once in a while they did visit his grandparents and he had gathered that they hadn’t approved of the marriage or her husband but then neither did they countenance her staying alone in Delhi.
Sherry vaguely remembered thinking as a child that his family was the norm and the ones with fathers and other siblings as something rather abnormal! And he had had no complaints; possibly because steady stream of horror stories that came his way via his friend Raju regarding his dad helped Sherry count his blessings.
Raju’s father was a very strict disciplinarian and a firm believer of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. And each time Raju got thrashed by his father, he would come and cry on Sherry’s shoulder and envy Sherry’s fatherless status and make grand plans to bump off his own.
Then there was Sheila, their cook cum his caretaker in his mum’s absence.
Sheila would often turn up with a black eye or purple bruises from the beatings she had received again at the hands of her drunkard husband. Sheila never complained or cried, but would respond in a matter-of-fact manner to his morbidly curious questions (of course in his mother’s absence).
“Kya hua Sheila chachi?” he remembered staring enviously at her black eye, wondering if it were possible to get one like that.
“Mera marad ne daru peekar mara, Sheru beta,” she informed him as she served him his food after he returned from school.
“Par kyon,” surely there must have been some reason?
“Usko aur paise chahiye the daru peene ke liye, maine dene se mana kar diya, isliye maraa,” she reported unemotionally.
“Uske paas paise nahi hai kya?” Sheru wondered.
“Nahi woh koi kaam nahi karta, khana khaao beta,” she nudged him.
Hungry, he stuffed a morsel into his mouth and chewed it thoughtfully, “De deti paise usko daru peene ke liye?” What was the problem? Why get beaten up? He wondered.
“Paise de deti toh mere bachche kya khayenge? Woh toh bhooke mar jayenge na,” she laid bare the harsh facts of life.
“Usko bhi toh daaru peena hoga, pyaas lagi hogi?” Sheru argued for the absent marad.
“Daaru bahut buri cheez hai beta, zeher hai zeher, daaru peene se sab kuch kharab ho jaata hai, sirf peenewale ki hi nahi, balki uski poori parivaar nasht ho jaata hai,” Sheila tried to explain to a six-year old the ills of drinking.
He digested this bit of information as he slowly worked his way through his lunch. His admiration for the black eye was fast fading; so the ‘marad’ was no hero, he was the villain; a slow anger began building up within him. He mentally swung him a swift right hook and brought him down to his knees.
“Aapne bhi maara na usko?” he asked with delicious anticipation of a good fight.
“Nahi beta, main kaise maar sakti hoon, woh toh mera haath hi thod dega,” she sighed.
Disappointed and quite out of patience with such a wimpish defeatist attitude, “Maar ke toh dekho,” he exhorted bracingly, “Nahi toh uske saath mat raho,” he offered his solution.
She shook her head and for the first time Sheru saw bitterness and anger blaze through her eyes, “Kahan jaaongi apne bachchon ko lekar, waise bhi yeh duniya bahut zaalim hai beta; is duniya main ek aurat ko doosre jungli janwar se bach kar rehne ke liye ek jungli janwar ka sahara toh lena hi padta hai …” she hastily changed the topic and hustled him, “yeh sab baatein chhodo Sheru beta, jaldi khana khatam karo, aur bhi toh kaam hai na? Abhi Ma ka phone aa jayega.”
That had been the end of that conversation, although Sherry had never really forgotten it.
Then a few months later, Sheila stopped coming and not satisfied with his mother’s vague explanations, ‘she had to go off somewhere’ he intensified his investigations and questioned her replacement, who had no compunctions about pouring out all the gory details with great relish.
It seemed that Sheila had taken his advice to heart – one day after yet another thrashing by her drunken husband, had she packed her bags intending to walk out with her kids but then he had flown into a rage and dashed their youngest daughter against the wall. Incensed and outraged, Sheila snapped – she picked up the stone used for grinding masala and hit him on the head – he died on the spot. The police had of course arrested her and her 3 daughters shuttled between their maternal and paternal grandparents.
Too young to realize the implications and consequences of a dead father and a jailed mother for Sheila’s children, Sheru had been thrilled – justice had finally triumphed and more importantly, it was his advice that had helped free Sheila from the clutches of an evil man.
Vaguely he had wondered if his own father too had been an evil man; must have been; otherwise he would be staying with them wouldn’t he? Perhaps he never had a father, perhaps he had only a mother, not that he had any complaints, from what he could see, fathers were a big pain; Nanu was nice of course, but he did grumble a lot at Nani, poor Nani she couldn’t even walk straight and he was always yelling at her because she was so slow and forgot so many things. Or may be, maybe Ma had killed his father in order to to save her precious son just like Sheila had, he had thought rather bloodthirstily.
He had tried to question his mother, but she had suddenly been very busy and there had been a whole list of errands for him to do. And then his mother had gifted him a computer which she allowed him to use for a couple of hours everyday. And that was what had put an end to his curious prying questions – he was content in his virtual world of computer games. He now wondered if that had been a deliberate move on his mother’s part to divert him and distract him from following his chain of possibly uncomfortable questions.
And in what could only be called a moment of epiphany he realized that no matter what the reason, it couldn’t have been easy for a single mother to bring up a child. But never by word or gesture had she ever let on exactly how tough it must have been to ensure that he never missed having a father.
But he had been curious, always; after so many years of discipline and self-control, the chink in her armor was very much visible and Sherry was not about to give up so easily, “Ma?” he insisted even more strongly.
Sunita refused to turn around, she continued to look unseeingly out of the window but she spoke softly, so faintly that Sherry had to strain to hear, “I fell headlong into a relationship with your father, never bothering to really analyze if we were suited or if our ideals and principles matched; before I knew I was married to him and was pregnant with you,” she was silent for a while and Sherry let her take her time but he held his breath.
She turned around at that and said regretfully, “Soon after I had you, I realized how unsuited we were, I tried to convince myself especially for your sake,” she sighed, “but then it was for your sake that I took the decision to move out, I didn’t want you to be affected by…by all the unpleasantness,” she hesitated, “But then one can never be really sure can one? I never really got over the guilt of depriving you of your father,” her voice broke a bit but then steadied; she stood tall and proud, “But yet I was…I am sure – I couldn’t have continued to live with him.”
Sherry felt a sudden gush of intense love and tenderness for this strong lady who had never by word or deed let on about her pain, her loss, her loneliness just so that he could have a complete wholesome life, “Ma,” he called his voice thick with emotion and held out his hand, his eyes warm and soft, “If you couldn’t have lived with him, I am sure I couldn’t have either,” he reassured her, “But what exactly was it, I mean can you tell me at least the gory outlines?” he said flippantly trying to make mood light.
She patted his cheek, “Maybe some other time,” she nodded, “You are old enough to know the truth I guess, but some other day ok?”
He nodded his head reluctantly, sudden curiosity eating into him, must have been something really big for his mother to take such a drastic step and bring him up single-handedly; pride for his mother filled his heart.
“Love you Ma,” he said gruffly, “I guess it must have been tough with me hanging around your neck like an albatross.”
She bent down and kissed his forehead, “Love you too darling,” a fine break in her voice, “And you are the one who made everything worth it.”
Chotte looked resignedly at his Di, wondering how to tackle this new crisis when Poo popped up from nowhere, “Kya dhoondhna hai Di, main kuch madad karoon?”
“Poooo!” burst out Arnav and Di simultaneously.
“Nahiii!” rang out Khushi’s voice equally loud and clear; she grabbed hold of Poo’s hand and pulled her down beside her, “Poo kahin nahi jaa rahi hai, I need her dammit.”
“Look Khushi,” Arnav began placatingly, “Nahi nahi nahi,” Khushi refused to listen.
But then kitni der tak? Arnav was at his persuasive best and Anjali’s wide pleading soulful eyes were quite the undoing of Khushi, she gave in but with poor grace and only after winning some concessions; Poo was hers for half a day each day. Khushi grinned triumphantly and did a hi-five with a bewildered Poo.
Poo was thoroughly confused, she couldn’t make head or tail of the arguments and counter arguments flowing thick and fast over her head, first her heart leaped when Khushi pulled her down, ahh bhabhi did really love her, but what was this? Bhaiya was planning to send her away somewhere? Her heart sank, tears clogged her throat, even Di wanted her to go away? But why? Uski kya galati thi? At least Bhabhi was still fighting for her, half days with Bhabhi and what about the rest of the time?
“Ka…kahan bhej rahe hain mujhe?” she finally managed to squeak.
Deal done, argument over, they laughed, “Kahin nahi,” Anjali smiled and cupped her cheek, “Bas ab se half days you will be working with me, theek hai na?”
“Haan Poo,” Arnav explained, “Aisa hai, that Di needs your help in setting up her own business and since your Bhabhi,” he shot a look at Khushi, who stuck out her tongue at him, “is not keen to let you go completely, you will work half days with her,” he looked at his Di and then back at Poo, “Make sure you extract your pound of flesh from Di, aise hi free main kaam mat karna, waise I hope Khushi doesn’t take advantage of your goodness and aise hi free main kaam toh nahi karwa leti hai?” he said slyly.
Khushi and Di looked at each other and glared at Arnav, “Achcha toh ab aap bhi Narad Muni bane beithe hai yahaan! Kaam shuru hone se pehle hi jhagda karwa do!” sniffed Khushi while Di remonstrated, “Chotte tum bhi na! Yeh bhi koi bolne ki cheez hai! Of course she will be compensated appropriately for her professional services.”
Arnav grinned unrepentantly while Poo blushed, flustered and embarrassed at being the centre of attention, “Nahi nahi Di yeh kya bol rahein hai aap, hum kuch madad kar sakein aapki yehi bahut hai,” she mumbled rather inadequately, for she was incapable of putting into words the depth and extent of her emotions at being so valued and wanted by the Raizada parivaar that no amount of money could ever come close to it.
“Nonsense,” Arnav said briskly, “You will never be a good business woman if you talk like that, aur Di se toh bach ke rehna she is just looking for an excuse to deprive you of your rights,” he ribbed wickedly raising Di’s hackles, but he just ducked and carried on, “but Poo, before you start assisting Di, over the next couple of months or perhaps longer till everything is streamlined, you will have to come to ARD as assistant to Aman and learn the ropes, theek hai?”
Poo nodded her head obediently; she was still in awe of Arnav and spoke very little in front of him though she was very free and talkative with the rest of the family members.
Arnav looked at her thoughtfully, “Waise bhi you will find this experience to be valuable when you set about managing your own business.”
Poo was taken aback, “My business?”
“Haan,” Arnav nodded casually, “Aakash apna hissa maang raha hai, so I am dividing up the business, part to him, part to Di and part to you.”
Click here for Chapter 310