“Don’t even think of it,” Prerna’s voice came thundering from the kitchen. Like all mothers, she seemed to possess some extra sensory perception that made life quite difficult for her two pre-teenagers. The jalebis, ripping with syrupy sweetness had been luring Bunty towards them for a long time. He was dying to have one, but apparently, they could be had only after the puja was over. He had casually strolled across to the dining table, where the source of temptation lay. All of 4 feet, he placed himself strategically, behind the flower vase. Then quite, gingerly he stretched out his hand, to reach out to one of those delectable rings that lay on a silver platter. That is when the voice from the kitchen came and he promptly put his hand behind his back.
Dejected, he wandered off in search of something to keep his mind off the torturous jalebis. His older brother, Vicky was out playing cricket with the other boys. Apparently, the cricket team, which called itself the Dangerous Daredevils, did not allow boys below 8 to play for the team . And so poor Bunty was left alone, to search for ways to entertain himself. That is what took him up the stairs to the terrace where Daadi was pounding the rice to prepare laddus. Two other ladies and Raju, the family’s Man Friday was there too. Raju had a great sense of humour and always had a bunch of jokes and games up his sleeve. Right now he was regaling the ladies with some funny incident that he had encountered on the way to the market a few days back. Bunty could not quite figure out what the joke was all about, but it certainly had something to do with Major General Sharma, a retired army officer, well into his 70s who was not quite the most popular man in town. Apparently, the Major General, who rarely stepped out of his house, was seen at the marketplace that morning, just outside Modern Photo Studio.
He was a rather cantankerous old man, finicky about discipline, good behaviour, and values. A young chap, who often hung around near the bus stop with his friends, had cracked a joke about him. Apparently, he had been seen standing just outside the photo studio for quite sometime, holding something behind his back. He seemed to be in some kind of a dilemma, as if he couldn’t quite decide whether to enter the studio or not. He kept looking from left to right, then took a step towards the shop and retraced his steps. This had been the cause for much mirth among the bunch of young onlookers and one of them had called out saying, “The old man seems to be losing it!” An outburst of hooting laughter had followed and the old man, incensed beyond limit had given them a tongue lashing. “Uncouth, useless fellows,” he had called them.
Raju was narrating the episode and chortling with laughter. So were the others. Bunty, who was leaning over the banister that led to the terrace, listened intently. He had seen the Major General on several occasions and heard about him every single day. It just so happened that on most days, he was quite reluctant to take an afternoon nap and so his mother usually threatened him, telling him that if he did not sleep, the ‘Army man’ would take him away and lock him up. In earlier years, the very mention of the old man would promptly make him close his eyes and go to sleep. Nowadays, the trick was not quite working. Instead, he was growing increasingly curious about this old man.
“Why are you leaning over the banister like that? Do you want to fall and break your bones?” Prerna’s voice rose sharply from below. Bunty promptly slid down and ran to his mother who was making an alpana at the entrance. “Mamma,” he said. “Why does everyone make fun of the Army man?”
“No one makes fun of him,” his mother replied sharply.
“Yes, Mamma, they do. Raju bhaiya was telling everybody about something that had happened to him and all were laughing.”
Prerna made a mental note to reprimand Raju for joking about the Army man who was one of the few tools left with her to get her little fellow to sleep and stay out of trouble. The picture she had painted of the old man to the boy was that of a fearful tyrant who caught hold of naughty children by the collar and locked them up in his attic. His bushy moustache, bloodshot eyes and a crown of closely cropped white hair seemed to fit the picture she had painted of him to the boy.
“Listen,” she said sternly, brushing away a wisp of hair that had fallen over her forehead. “ You just be a good boy. The Army man will beat up all those who make fun of him and lock them up in his attic. If you are good, he will reward you.”
Bunty listened very seriously. “What will he reward me with?”
“Lots of chocolates,” Prerna replied because she could not think of any other reward at that moment.
This rather humane side of the Army man seemed to appeal to Bunty. He sat on the ground, beside his mother, lost in thought. The Army man was a man he was quite eager to please because apparently several reports of his mischief had reached his ears. He needed to rectify this rather erroneous impression that had been thrust upon the old man of him.
As the evening progressed, the house was resonating with the sacred sound of kirtans and the tinkle of bells. The fragrance of incense sticks and dhoop filled the air and the people sat in the front hall of the room, soaked in the serenity of the moment. Bunty had other things on his mind though. The jalebis, for instance – and the kachoris and the kheer and the gulab jamuns, that were to be served as bhog after the puja. He had never quite been enamoured by these pujas but the prasad at the end, always compensated for those long hours of boredom. Slowly, his mind wandered off to other territories. He thought of the Army man. He wondered what he was doing right now. No one had thought of inviting him for the puja though prasad was always sent to him. Bunty wondered what he was doing right now. He got up stealthily and moved quietly to the entrance of the hall and slipped out. There were people outside. He picked up a ball that was lying near the front porch and bouncing it along, maneuvered his way to the back gate and sprinted out into the darkness. A couple of dogs barked at him and then moved off. Bunty stood there, staring at the dimly lit house, just across the field. It stood proudly, in splendid solitude, half decayed and yet holding the mark of a former grandeur.
He took a few steps forward, ran a hand across his mouth and broke into a run. He raced down a winding path, and finally drew to a halt, breathless. Beads of perspiration ran down his face and the back of his shirt clung to his back. He stopped and stared. The house looked much bigger than it did from a distance and certainly a lot more intimidating. He looked back. Home suddenly seemed far away. A sense of fear crept up and the only thing he suddenly wanted to do was run. He was still holding onto the fence when suddenly a torch was flashed in his face. He screamed.
“Don’t shout,” a voice barked at him. “You will scare my babies.”
Bunty was trembling. Mamma was right. The Army man was truly a wicked man and was certainly going to catch him and drag him up to the attic where he had kept the other babies. He started sobbing. “I want to go to Mamma. Please leave me. I am sorry. I know I have been naughty. Don’t take me away.”
The old man loosened his hold and stared down at the boy. His steely eyes had mellowed slightly, but his brows were creased as he watched the boy. “Why should I take you away?” he growled.
“Mamma says that you will take me away, if I don’t sleep or if I do something naughty,” he managed to blurt out between sobs.
The old man continued to watch him for a while and then cleared his throat. “Come along in, you little villain .”
“No,” Bunty screamed. “I want to go home .”
“Just come,” the old man said gruffly. “I won’t eat you.”
He dragged the boy, through the clump of wildly growing shrubs and into the front door of the house. He entered a partly lit, huge room with ornate furniture place right at the centre. He then pushed the little boy onto one of the couches and sat down beside him. He watched the boy sob profusely and then stretched his hand out to a little bowl at the centre table, picked out a chocolate and gave it to him. The boy stopped and stared, first at the chocolate and then at the old man. Fear evaporated and wonder took over. He remembered Mamma saying that the Army man rewarded those who were good, with chocolates.
“Is this a reward?” he asked, wide-eyed.
“Have you done something good?” the old man asked.
Bunty really could not answer that one, but he nodded his head.
“Then have it,” the old man said, with a smile on his face.
Bunty took the chocolate from him and examined it. It looked like one of the chocolates Vishal Mama had brought for him, during his last visit to India. He slowly removed the wrapper and popped it into his mouth and then continued his scrutiny of the old man. There were tear stains on his face as he licked away at the chocolate.
“You liked it ?” the old man asked. Bunty nodded. “Have it and I will give you another one.”
Bunty’s face lit up. He was beginning to like the Army man. He didn’t seem to be as much a monster as Mamma had painted him to be. The little boy had by now got off the couch and was leaning against it and swinging from side to side. That was when his eyes fell on a bunch of photographs lying on the table. He reached out to the one on top and looked at it closely. It was a black and white photograph showing two beautifully dressed ladies and a young man.
“Who are these?” he asked, pointing to the photograph. “ My children,” he replied.
He took the photograph from the child’s hand and looked at it, his eyes moist and gentle.
“Where are they ?” was Bunty’s next question.
“Far away,” he replied softly.
“Why are you crying?” the child asked.
“I am not crying,” he said wiping his eyes. I am very happy actually.
Bunty looked at him dubiously. “Who cries when they are happy?”
“I do,” he said smiling through his tears.
A sudden frantic pounding on the front door interrupted the quiet moment of intimacy between the two. He got up to open the door. A trembling Prerna stood at the threshold with Rakesh, her husband. “Is Bunty with you ?” she burst out.
“Yes, he is right here. Come in. Bunty, your Mamma and Papa have come.
Bunty ran to his parents and pulled them in. “Look, Mamma, Army man gave me a chocolate. I have been good na.”
“Why did you come out alone? ” Prerna shouted, giving him a whack on his head.
“Hush, calm down,” her husband said, gathering the child in his arms.
“I brought him in actually, “ the old man said. “I saw him outside and just felt like talking to him. He is such an angel .”
“But you should not have done it, sir,” she said, in a high pitched voice. “We almost died of worry .”
He folded his palms in apology, his head bent low .”I admit I was wrong.” There was an uncomfortable silence. “Why don’t you sit for a while ?” he then said.
“We are having a puja at home. We need to get back,” Rakesh said, lifting the child in his arms.
“I know. I heard the sound of the kirtans and the Gita Paath . Very soothing. Sit for a few minutes. There is something that I need to share with you.” He indicated the couch to them and himself sat down on the chair opposite it.
He looked serious, and yet not his usual ferocious self. Perplexed, the couple looked at each other and sat down.
He sat, with his head bent low and then picked up the photograph on top and looked at it for a while. “I will be leaving on Saturday for the US.”
“Oh,” was all that the two could say. Truly speaking, they could not figure out how it should concern them in any way. They lived in the neighbourhood but had interacted on very few occasions in all these years. The only times they spoke was to find out why the electricity supply had been suddenly cut off or to figure out the increase in property tax. They had never quarreled but since the Major General was a man who kept to himself, except to reprimand errant people, the interaction had been minimal.
“The house will be locked up for a while. I am going to meet my children,” he went on to say slowly. There was silence. Bunty was digging into the pocket of his father’s kurta, searching for hidden treasures. Prerna and Rakesh looked at each other, wondering what to say. A call was bound to come any time now from home, asking where they were.
“I am sure that would be a good idea,” Rakesh said, perfunctorily. “At your age, you should not be living in this house all by yourself.”
The old man seemed to be lost in his thoughts. He was still looking down at the photograph in his hand.
Suddenly he blurted out. “I have been nothing but a bloody arrogant fool! I have spent thirty-five torturous years killing my self with the guilt of having killed my daughter. My own flesh and blood. “He was silent, quite oblivious of the shocked expression on the faces of the couple sitting in front of him. Then he continued, “She was in love with a Pakistani diplomat. She was planning to elope with him. You know how young girls are,” he added wryly. “Like most other girls of her age, she had grown up on a diet of those romantic novels – what were they called?” he paused for a minute to recollect the name.”Ah yes, Mills &Boon romances. She devoured them day and night. She met him when General Zia ul Haq had visited India. He was part of the entourage. There was a party at New Delhi. That is where she met him. I knew nothing about it. But her sister did. So did her mother. I knew nothing.” Pain exuded from his voice.
“I intercepted some letters between them, quite by chance. I was horrified. I spoke to her. I pleaded with her. I spoke to her about the horrors of 1965 and 1971.” His voice trembled. There was a pregnant silence in the room that was interrupted by the periodic whirring of the fan. Bunty had run off to the window and was trying to climb up the grill. “I cried before he. Fell on my knees and begged her to forget him. I tried to introduce her to some of my army officers – smart, strapping young men. She was obstinate as hell. She really never cared that my reputation as a patriotic army officer was at stake. The post-war wounds were still very sore and no amount of trust building exercises could heal ties between our two countries. Finally, I did what I had to.”
There was a pause. Then in an almost inaudible voice, he says, “I hired someone to kill her off.”
He did not look up to see the horrified look on the faces of the two people in front of him. “I never saw her again – her or her body. She had gone trekking. I asked to have her pushed off a cliff.”
Prerna and Rakesh gasped. “I am a devil, isn’t it?” his face was contorted with pain.
“But at that time, what mattered most to me was my honour and my country. I couldn’t sleep that night – and I haven’t slept since then. Her mother and sister were silent in the days that followed. I guessed they were numb with shock. They did not know that I was behind her death. I spent long hours, sobbing behind closed doors. But I don’t know what they did. They had suddenly become withdrawn. My elder daughter flew off to Harvard soon after and never came back except for her mother’s funeral a year later. It took her 15 years to start communicating with me.”
He was staring at the floor. After a few minutes, he cleared his throat and continued. His deep baritone voice sounded shaky. “Today, I went up to the attic. Chimpu, one of my babies had somehow managed to get stuck there and was crying out for help. Chimpu – one of my cats,” he elaborated when he says the look of confusion on their faces. After bringing her out, I lingered on to rummage through some things that were there. There is an old cupboard of hers there. Something urged me to open it. I found a whole lot of her books, some clothes and a camera I had bought for her sister just before she had left for Harvard. You can’t imagine the surge of pain that sprang through me as I looked at those things. The camera brought back a flood of memories. I then notice that there was some undeveloped film inside it. A part of me wanted to put it away – throw it. It would probably have pictures of the family and I did not want to see them. Seeing their photographs would be like seeing them again and I… I really couldn’t face them. And yet … yet I wanted to know what those photographs were.”
“I went to the studio and got the film developed. “There was a brief pause. “They were her wedding photographs.”
Prerna and Rakesh stared at him bewildered. “But how… when? You mean her wedding snaps?”
“Her wedding snaps. She never died. The person I had hired to have her killed never did it. He informed my wife and my elder daughter about it and together they arranged for her to escape. They secretly got her married to that boy a few months after my elder daughter left for Harvard. It seems he left the Pakistani Embassy to avoid causing any further pain to me and the two went on to settle down in the US.”
He lifted his head and sat back with a sigh. “I called my elder daughter yesterday. She finally revealed the truth to me.” There was another pause. “I don’t know how to react. I am thrilled. The burden of guilt… the torture … they have been killing me every day for the last 35 years. I am relieved. I am happy beyond limits. I feel betrayed too. By my own family. I am sure they felt betrayed too…,” he trailed off.
He was beginning to sound a little incoherent. Thoughts were just pouring out randomly. “Oh! What a tangled web we weave ….” he quoted with a slight smile on his face. “I spoke to her as well. They want to meet me. I begged her to forgive me. She was sobbing over the phone and told me that not a single day had passed when she did not think of me and cry.”
He wiped his eyes and looked up at the young couple in front of him. They were looking at him, anguish at his suffering, writ large on their faces. He cleared his throat and smiled. “I am flying out on Saturday. I don’t know when I will be back. Do take care of my house. I will hand over some money to you before leaving. Could you please take out some time to pay my bills for me.”
“We will,” Rakesh said, placing his hand over the old man ’s. “Forget the past. We all make mistakes. Here is a new beginning for you. We are truly happy for you .”
The old man smiled. “You have a very smart and loving child,” indicating towards Bunty who had managed to fall off to sleep on the armchair beside the window.
Prerna and Rakesh smiled. “Thank you. Bless him.”
“Oh yes. I bless him abundantly,” he replied quite heartily. “Thank you for giving me a listening ear. I just had to talk to someone. Little Bunty paved the way .”
Rakesh moved over to the armchair to lift the sleeping child. Prerna took the old man’s hand in hers and looked up at him. “Uncle, could you please join us for the bhog?”
He smiled. “I will.”