“This man is a gem of a person. Imagine, he’s fifty and look at how he runs every day, greets everyone with his charm and throws his generous smile for everyone who can catch.”
“Ya. He’s nice. But do you know he’s a divorcee?”
It was not false. He was actually a divorcee but people made it sound as if that meant vampire. He had gotten himself into a fixed routine in order to avoid facing all the null and the void. He would begin his morning with a long walk at a park nearby. He was known for his greetings. He would greet everyone good morning- old, young, kids, aunties, their husbands, everyone. Small talk was no material to him. Why give yourself false hope? He would rather send across a tax-free smile. And it would work wonders for everyone.
He owned a supermarket that he managed for a living. It was a popular local place. His customers were loyal to him. Who wouldn’t want to be served with a smile? His father had begun a small grocery store in the same place. His parents had passed away long back. Nevertheless, he was a proud son. Each day, before going to the store, he would cook for himself. It would come as a surprise to everyone. But it was a great therapy.
He had a daughter who lived with his wife, well, ex-wife. They lived in a different city, miles away. In spite of the distance, they used to speak on call each day: the everyday things, school, her friends, homework, exams, results, books, movies, etc. They would meet five-six times a year. He would go to meet her/them in summer vacations, sometimes in monsoon, Diwali, Christmas and whatever long weekends possible. He had only a few days to refill memories for the longing that came ahead for the next few months.
There were times, his little-beloved home would hound him to insatiable longing. He was not lonely per say. He even had a few harmless romantic relationships. More importantly, he had a beautiful set of friends. But it was another thing to live alone. Going to bed alone for years had killed his appetite for sleep. His home still spoke of memories of his wife and young daughter who was born in the same house. His bedroom still had pictures of his wife and him. He didn’t know what would it mean to lift them off. It was a fifteen-year marriage and a twenty-year friendship. How could he erase it all? After all, they had just seized to be husband and wife. Their friendship still remained.
There were beautiful pictures of his daughter- from the days she was newborn to her first day at school, to when she was 8, which is when they had started living separately. After two years, they had mutually agreed to file a divorce. It was a painful process but they had to go through it. They were not sure how it was affecting their daughter. They tried to make the transition easy.
You would fine little soft toys and small playthings, everywhere in the house. Those were untouched, unused, some even packed. He had no intentions of discarding anything. The house never had too much of his daughter’s stuff. There was always room for her.
Her little pillow with her name inscribed on it, still lay on his bed. Days when he’d miss putting her to sleep, he’d put the pillow near his arms, and whisper little nothings to her. Other times, he would hug it to sleep.
It was summer time and his daughter, now 14, was coming home for the vacation. There was an evident distance that he had noticed on calls, since a few months. He had talked to his ex-wife about it and she suggested that they spend the vacation together.
“I’m sure it’s just the awkward growing up phase every daughter goes through. It creates a little distance from the fathers.” she had said assuring him.
He skipped his morning walk the day she was to come. He had told everyone possible, the day before:
“I won’t come tomorrow.My daughter is coming home!”
“That’s great! Bring her the next morning. We’d love to meet her!” one of the old grandpas had said.
It was an early morning flight. He reached the airport 30 minutes before time. It would be worth it, standing there, seeing her walk towards me, he thought. When she actually walked by, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He had seen in the pictures but he could not believe she had grown so much. Now she was almost the same height as him. She was too tall for her age and just as pretty as her mother.
A huge smile broke across his face as she walked by and they hugged. He wanted to hold her at least for thirteen seconds. It is said that people who hold each other for that much, truly love each other. But she was done in five.
“How are you, baby?!!”
“I am good, Papa. How are you?”
“I am great. Look at me, how happy am I to see you here.”
On the way, they spoke about various things: her exams, when were the results due, about her friends and where had they gone for their vacations.
“Let’s carry your favourite jalebi from on the way.”
“I am on diet, Papa. Plus jalebi is not my favourite anymore.” She said in her irritated tone.
“Oh. So what’s your favourite?” he hesitated, feeling shy of a sudden acknowledgement of not knowing his daughter’s favourite sweet.
“Cheesecake” she said matter of factly.
“Well, then cheese cake it is!”
“I’m on diet Paa. Perhaps on the weekend, let’s see.”
When they reached home, she immediately ran inside to see her room.
“It’s still the same! Nothing has changed.” She was trying hard to maintain her poker face but faint and fond memories of her early childhood infused enthusiasm in her, that showed on her face.
“Yes it is. Everything is the same.” He smiled.
He had several ideas in his mind of what all they could do together. They could go shopping, watching movies, amusement park, or perhaps drive to the beach next town. But he wanted her to take the day off and decide.
“You want to rest today? We could go for movies.”
“I’d like to go and meet Maasi first. (Her mother’s sister.) I’ve promised her I will have lunch at her place.”
A little disappointed, he said, “Okay, I’ll drop you there then.”
He waited for her call until evening. He thought she’ll call him to ask for a pickup. She didn’t. He called her Masi’s phone to speak to her.
“It’s fun here! Mahir and I are planning to gather the kids in the neighborhood to play a night cricket match!”
“Oh great… so you’re not coming back home today?” he asked hesitantly. He knew the answer.
“No, I’ll come tomorrow. I will call you.”
Next day, she called around lunch time. He picked her up from there.
As they sat on the lunch table, she said, “Do you love me, Papa?”
“Of course, I do.” He replied with a tinge of laughter; an instance response. This was a question, he didn’t have to take even a second of thought.
“Then why don’t you live with us?”
He left his chores and took a seat.
“Beta, you know your mom and I are divorced, right? How can we live together? My work is here. I can’t shift. Her work is there. She can’t shift. That’s how.”
“But why did you both do this to me?”
“Well, we didn’t plan it. But it happens at times. When two people can’t live with each other, they separate.”
“But what does the child do? Everyone keeps asking me, ‘Where is your father? Why doesn’t he live with you?’” Tears rolled down her cheeks.
This was not just anger. It was a heartfelt emotion.
“I am alone on all the special days: my birthday, award functions, talent shows, everything! I don’t love you anymore, Papa!”
She got up from the chair and turned her face so that he wouldn’t see her tears. It was of no use, he could hear it. Then she ran towards the bathroom and locked herself up.
He didn’t get angry or panic. Her question was valid, so was her emotion. This was the catharsis, he shouldn’t interfere in this.
After a few minutes, he knocked the bathroom door.
“Beta, you know what happened today? I went for my usual morning walk. I greeted to Sharma uncle, Lata aunty, that new cute little kid. I had told them you are coming. So they were a little disappointed watching me walk alone. The old is gold group asked me about you too. But beta, I still love you. Them asking me about you, doesn’t have to reduce my love for you. I don’t have to possess you and make you appear in front of them. I love you because you are a part of me, an extension of me.”
There was silence. The door opened. Her eyes were full of tears. Without any more words, she gave him a tight hug. There were any apologies due on any side because there was a lot to apologise for. Instead they thought of what they were thankful for.
After a light lunch, when he started winding up, he saw her relishing the jalebis he had brought in the morning. There was no stopping her.
“Areeeeee! Your cheese cake was in the fridge! You ate my jalebis.”
“Well, I thought you should get to try the cheese cake. I can do that much sacrifice for my father. No?” she smiled making that innocent face.
She got up and gave him a hug, they laughed, and kissed. This one definitely lasted more than thirteen seconds. And that night, his daughter replaced herself with the pillow.
Next morning, when the father-daughter jogged together in the park, he introduced her to everyone and she chirped gleefully.
“Wow, just like her father!” they said.