First published in a collection of stories, The Cameo Sheaves, by the same author.
Publisher: Ambience Publishing, New Delhi, India
What reinforcement we may gain from hope,
If not, what resolution from despair.
It was one of those rare summer evenings that generously lent a soft breeze to cool the nerves and check the oppressive heat. Nothing was depressingly still, yet there was a calm quiet that was soothing. Mother Nature was at her kindest best, delving deep into her generous bounty to placate sweaty brows and frayed nerves. And wipe off the brows of slumberous languor. In short, this was an atypical July evening with no heat.
Ved stood at the window, quiet as the falling dusk itself, an earnest expression on his aging but striking face. He had turned forty-five that day. Not that it mattered, for what was a birthday but just another milestone in man’s humdrum life? At least, that’s what Ved Mehta thought. Or rather, would have liked to believe.
Sober, unassuming and suave, Ved was content with reasonable wealth that had always been ubiquitous in his pampered life. He craved little for a slice of the material consumerism that had become an integral part of urban India in the nineties. Fortunately, his faithful and lovely wife shared his altruistic vision of a slow-paced, comfortable life. Happy with a beautiful house in the quiet town of Dehradun, an exceptionally well-planned front garden and a close circle of like-minded friends, Nina let life drift by, quite indifferent to its uneventfulness. But today, as she sat in the large living room, chatting quietly with their new neighbor, she glanced towards her husband with an uneasy expression on her face. She sensed a familiar restlessness in him and instinctively understood why…
She will be here soon, he thought, eyes fixed on the gravelled path lined with the season’s late gerberas. They were changing colour now as the sun dipped lower into the horizon, gracefully and splendidly retiring for the night. Evening time was always beautiful in this Valley town at the foothills of the majestic Himalayas—slow-paced, sombre and soft. But strangely Nature’s charisma failed to rejuvenate Ved as he stood still at the window. Insensitive to the natural panorama unfolding before him, Ved had eyes only for the front gate, knowing it would open soon…
He could feel a familiar excitement rise up within him, pervade his senses with fervent longing. He could barely contain the mounting happiness that was flooding his being, could barely stand still with the impatience of feeling so alive….He had waited so long for this special moment. Dreamt of it since months! The homecoming of his beloved daughter.
“Papa!” Her clear, sweet voice floated across the manicured stretch of lush green lawn. Untidy hair blowing in the balmy breeze, light-footed as a hare, she raced towards the house, uncaring for her disheveled appearance, or her bag flung carelessly near the front gate. She rushed into the drawing room with a characteristic clatter, bringing in with her all the excitement and natural liveliness of a seventeen-year old.
“Papa! Mummy! I’m home!” Anamika announced, breathless and flushed. She kissed her mother lovingly and then ran towards Ved, “Papa! Happy birthday, my dearest Papa!” She hugged him tight with the natural spontaneity of youth and produced a bouquet of red roses from behind her back—the stems broken, leaves crushed and soft petals torn asunder—but to Ved’s partial eyes, simply perfect!
“Gosh! It’s so good to be home! Did you miss me as much as I did?” Anamika demanded, prancing around the room in high excitement, peering out at the falling darkness. Soon, tired and restless, she almost tumbled onto the newly upholstered sofa, launching into an incessant chatter. Of course, she had plenty to say, coming home after almost eight months from her university hostel in Delhi. Her mother sat smiling, indulging in her child’s vivacious chatter and admiring her husband’s equanimity in the face of this verbal onslaught.
“It’s such a lovely evening! Let’s have the birthday dinner on the lawn, please Mummy!” Anamika pleaded, as she rushed upstairs to her room for a quick wash. By the time an elaborate dinner was laid out under the gently swaying jacaranda trees Anamika had met everybody in the house, including Frisky, the newest addition to the family kennel.
“He’s so sweet!” she declared, hugging the little ball of Pomeranian fur. She had changed into her favourite pair of old jeans and a comfortable blue shirt. Plain, ordinary clothes that still made her look extraordinary…for they could not take away the brightness of her large, expressive eyes or the endearing sweetness of her youthful face. Nor the unsullied purity of her loving heart.
“Papa, that chair is not comfortable enough. Sit on this one,” she insisted, willingly vacating the lounge chair for him. Her mother laughed, knowing this gesture was setting the note for the entire summer break. Adoring daughter would pamper her devoted father with unceasing attention and undisputed zest. Anamika served Ved his food now, just the way he liked it—a little of one dish, a dash of that. No heaped plateful for him. Tonight he could hardly eat, so full was he with the presence of his beloved daughter. His wife chided him gently for just pecking at the Kheer, the special milk and rice dessert that was an eternal favourite of the Mehta family.
“Papa! You’re looking much too thin, you know!” Anamika pronounced suddenly, her beautiful eyes filled with anxious concern. “Hasn’t he lost weight, Mummy?”
“I haven’t lost even a kilo!” Ved protested indignantly, yet secretly revelling in the sweet ministrations of his only child. Of course, she was not satisfied till Babu, their old helper, brought out the ancient weighing machine and Ved reluctantly agreed to perch precariously on it.
“There!” Anamika shouted triumphantly. “Two whole kilos and you don’t even know! I can never be wrong about you, dearest Papa.” She got up suddenly to give him an affectionate hug. He hugged her back, bleary-eyed and smiling at his wife.
It was past midnight when they decided to go into the house. They rose slowly, reluctant to leave the sylvan darkness, the warm dregs of shared tea and their sweet intimacy behind…Theirs was a magical family bond that always came alive with Anamika’s sweet presence. Her coming home was the highlight of the Mehtas’ existence. She filled the house with so much laughter and bubbling spirits, it was impossible not to feel animated when she was around. She was life’s greatest blessing to them and like always, Ved realised this more than ever on his birthday.
Like an angel treading softly on earthly ground, Anamika tiptoed into her parents’ bedroom that night and customarily left their gifts quietly on the side-table. She did this always; had done so ever since she was a child and went away, even if for a day.
In keeping with the ritual, Ved pretended to be asleep, not wanting to spoil her childish pleasure at the planned surprise. She had a right on all their feelings, even one of pretended delight!
Anamika had barely left the room, having done her angel act when Ved switched on the lamp and quietly unwrapped his birthday gift, not wanting to disturb his sleeping wife. Elegantly framed in nonreflecting glass and beautifully painted was a striking imitation of Monet’s celebrated work—the Water Lilies. His darling child had painted this herself, knowing this was his favourite piece of art; he could never afford the original or be satisfied with its reprint. The soft lamp-light fell on the pristine white flowers enhanced by the background of blue water and splendid verdure…Ved’s aesthetic eye could see much beyond the bold strokes, and their amateurism and he realised at once how much toil and sweet labour had gone into creating this beautiful painting. Only for him.
Eyes moist, he turned the painting over, instinctively knowing she would explain her loving act. “Dear Papa, I took almost three months to complete this! Each stroke is a reflection not of art or beauty, but something beyond that—my unfailing regard for you.” She had done it again. Performed her coup de love. Expressed her affection for him in a manner that could only be unique, for it came straight from her generous, unspoilt heart. He held the painting aloft, against the light, and it was as if the inanimate lilies came alive and spoke to him. Not of their own beauty or the supreme inspiration of their original artist, but the unmatchable quintessence of his beloved child.
Holding the painting lovingly in his hands, he went downstairs and made his way to his favourite nook in the living room. There, near the armchair, hung an English landscape on the wall—pretty but now worthless in comparison to what he was holding in his hands. “This is mere art, not life,” he muttered, as he quickly removed the reprint of Turner to replace with his precious gift. Then, sighing deeply with contentment, he stood back to admire it. This priceless masterpiece from her loving hands…
He couldn’t see it. Couldn’t see the Water Lilies at all. Startled, he rubbed his eyes in disbelief and looked again. Moments passed, as he stood there, unmoving, just gazing helplessly at the blank wall. Its harsh emptiness mocked him; its silent, characterless whitewash shook him out of his stunned stupor. Slowly a look of sad understanding dawned on his wan face. The excited glow left his eyes and in its stead remained two dark pools of unfathomable pain.
From her sofa, Nina anxiously watched her husband and saw his sudden change of expression. Tears filled her eyes and she explained sadly to her companion, “It has always been this way with him. He’s never stopped pining for the daughter we never had.”
She excused herself and the guest left, knowing the couple needed their privacy. Nina walked up to her silent husband, gently took his limp hand in hers and whispered softly, “She’ll never come, you know. There’s to be no homecoming.”
She was familiar with her husband’s recurring birthday dream, understood it and even felt it. Long into the quiet evening, they stood together at the window, watching the sun go down on their hopes, knowing no light-hearted step would ever resound on their gravelled path. No sweet voice ever fill the emptiness of their large house or the silent corners of their sad hearts…like always, she was the first to move but not away. Self-consciously but fervently, she hugged him tight and for the first time said what she had always wanted, all those long, barren years, “Anamika can never be. But let’s find a rainbow…just you and me.”
Ved gave her a long, thoughtful look and then smilingly, pointed silently towards the cloudless sky. There, shining like a king among the eternal beacons of the night, was the full moon. Nina gazed at it and then at Ved in amazement. Never on all his previous birthdays had he looked at anything but his own heavy heart, always comforting himself in the solitude of their room and the darkness of his gloomy thoughts. Letting a total eclipse shroud the intimacy they otherwise shared…
But now, he led her gently towards his favourite corner, pointed to the blank wall and said, “I think I could paint the Water Lilies sometime…maybe tomorrow.”
Nina heard the quiet resolve in his strong voice and for the first time in many years, felt a flicker of hope. His dream of a homecoming had finally ended.