[1998]

He opened the door of the silent ICU and stormed into it. His creased shirt and messed up hair showed his restless efforts of reaching his dying wife. The nurse stared at him in shock. Before she could notify him about his irresponsible behaviour, he spoke looking at his wife, “You are a coward.”

On the hospital bed, wires were attached to Leena’s body and tubes were running in and out of her nostrils. Though he was always a difficult person to deal with, this behaviour of him left her bewildered. She was too exhausted to speak anything. She just glanced at the nurse to ask her to leave them alone. Her breathing became heavier.

The man continued, “What were you thinking, huh? You want to drop the responsibility of our son on my chest and just leave? You have failed to deal with me and my lifestyle time and again. You are too weak to cope with it. And today, you tried to kill yourself so that you won’t have to bear with me? Is that what you were thinking; running away and dropping yourself from a bridge? You are a freaking loser, that’s what you are.”
 
The cursing words pierced her heart like a sword. Drops of tears had started rolling down her face. Her hands were too weak to wipe her own tears. She could feel her heart throbbing, but she was unable to put her palm on her chest to calm herself down. Such aggressive words filled with hate from her own person? How could one deal with it?
 
“Mr Raghav,” said the nurse from his back. She was at the ICU door. “Visiting time is over.”
 
Raghav glanced at his wife one more time. She could not see his face clearly as tears had curtained her eyes leaving the vision blurred for her. She saw a figure fading away from her sight. She sighed and felt agony in the throb which was her last throb.
 
Raghav made himself a drink on the evening of his wife’s death. He chose to mourn his failure in his way. The widower felt anger in his heart instead of grief. He lit up the lighter and was about to light the cigarette with it when his 6-year-old son, Jay pulled the end of his kurta. He looked at him. The boy looked scared; he had heard Raghav talking to his mother who was already on the deathbed. It shook him. He could not believe his ears. Though it was not the first time he was witnessing the ugly fight between his parents, this was unexpected. A dying person deserved a chance to express her last feelings, but…
 
“What?” scoffed Raghav.

“I… dad, I wanted to talk about something,” said the petrified Jay.

Raghav turned towards Jay. Jay was still nervous. He had lost all his support today. And his father was never his person. “Speak,” said Raghav, irritated.
   
“Mom was good.” That was all he could to form a decent sentence for a man like his father, especially in such a situation. Raghav did not react. He waited for more from Jay. Jay spoke again, with more courage this time, “She was not a coward.”
 
“Oh, I get it,” said Raghav putting down the lighter and the cigarette on the table. He nodded slightly in the agreement which was out of character for him. Jay sensed danger. How did he agree?
 
Raghav came closer to Jay and bent down to look into Jay’s eyes. He spoke, “Your mother was a freaking weak person who chickened out at the first opportunity she saw.”
 
The little boy could not resist his tears. He started weeping. “She died, father. She didn’t chicken out. She died.”
 
“Killing yourself does not dignify you as a dead person. It shows how weak and stupid you were, what a failure you were. Dropping off the bridge does not require courage. Your cowardice is enough for that,” said the man looking away from the boy who broke down. It was too much for a 6-year-old boy. Leena’s death sequence was floating in front of his eyes. And not only that, his helplessness made him more vulnerable.
 
Jay was on a moving train. He was coming home with his ayah after spending a vacation at his grandparents’ house. Leena was supposed to pick him up at the station. Jay was busy clicking pictures in his camera which his grandparents gifted to him during this visit. The next he saw was her mother’s car moving parallel to the train on a distant bridge. The car stopped and her mother got out swiftly. She started waving at the train as she knew that this was the train he was coming home in. Jay again started clicking her pictures out of joy. And before he could understand anything, the next he saw was his mother falling down the bridge. He ran to the door of the compartment and cried her name. But that was all he could do.
 
[20 years later…]
 
An old wooden door of the house gets knocked on twice. Raghav gets up from his reclining chair with a glass of whiskey in one hand. He walks to the door and opens it slightly to find his old colleague Aatish standing outside. He unchains the door; just like him, not even a single lock in the house is changed.
 
Aatish looks at Raghav and notices that his fierce eyes are exhausted now. Lips are dry and the face is even more unenthusiastic. Raghav shows no happiness nor does he welcome his colleague in his home but Aatish expected it. So he walks into the house avoiding any further awkwardness.
 
Raghav turns around and asks, “What are you doing here?”
 
“Need a favour,” says Aatish.
 
“A favour?” asks Raghav. “But I have nothing to give.”
 
“I know,” Aatish says. “I want what is already mine.”
 
“I don’t understand.”
 
Aatish sits on the chair placed in front of the TV set. “I run a company, a magazine. And it is facing some major crisis right now. So I am in a desperate need to save my efforts which I had put into…”
 
“Come to the point,” Raghav interrupts.
 
Aatish stiffens his back and says, “I am redoing the story on our Afghanistan tour from my point of view which has always been stronger and accurate.”
Raghav smirks, “Yeah. So what?”
 
“I truly believe that it will help my magazine stand on its feet again. You know what storm it had created at that time too,” says Aatish.
“So go ahead. You must remember every bit of it,” says Raghav leaning against the table and sips from his whiskey.
 
Though Raghav and Aatish were never best friends, they were the best competitors for each other; always complementing one another. One’s victory worked as a challenge for the other to prove himself the next time.
 
“I will need the photographs. They are monochrome, remember?” says Aatish coming to the point.
 
“Oh.” Raghav stands still. “But…”
 
“Look Raghav, you are not the man who can be generous. But I came for two reasons; one, I had to because I need to. And two, the photos were taken by me.” Aatish stands up and faces Raghav.
 
“I need to go through the archives. Maybe I will find…”
 
“There is no maybe,” interrupts Aatish. “You have the photos and they can never be misplaced which I know. Come on man, at least not now. I always knew that you had kept those photos which were technically mine but never questioned you. You broke our rules; not stealing each other’s shots and not keeping each other’s prints. But you broke them both and I let you do that but not now. I am in need. Find in your archives and give me the prints. You won’t be losing anything.”
 
“Need a day,” says Raghav.
 
While going out of the house, Aatish stops at the door and looked back at Raghav, “Are you still this cold and dull even after everyone left?”
 
“Go home man.”
 
On the second floor of the house, an old attic is locked. Once used as a darkroom for photo developing, this place is almost abandoned. Raghav used to spend so much of his time here while his wife would wait for him downstairs. He opens the attic. It is illuminated by the natural light coming from a large window. The place smells of moist. The old man stands at the door staring at the empty space. Only the darkroom setup is removed, the memories haven’t left the place yet. Leena’s frequent call and Jay’s requests to take him to the park are still floating in the air here. He can see himself sitting in front of the table and working on his camera or developing films ignoring all the sounds coming from downstairs are haunting him. Does he miss the voices? Should he have listened earlier? Before he let any of his memories affect his cold soul, he walks to the cabinet near the window where used to keep all the failed films. And now that cabinet has everything he has worked for all his life; his achievements, his failures, his experiments and his past life.  
 
On one afternoon, he dumped every single camera and all prints in this large cabinet and got all the pieces of equipment and lights removed from the room. That was the day when he locked the attic and never opened it. He deeply hated Aatish when he made him come to this place again.
 
It takes him greater effort to open the jammed doors of the cabinet. The last box has the prints, he knows it. So he starts dragging out the box and manages to take it out. He opens it on the floor and flips through the prints and old cameras; all with one brand name. But the Afghanistan album is yet to be found. He digs further and finally spots the title ‘Afghanistan Stories’. He removes a small camera from the top of the album and takes the album out. Yes, the prints are there on the album. But which camera is this? It is of a different brand name that means he never purchased this one. So who did?  
 
He puts everything back in the box except that different looking camera. Unable to hold back his curiosity, Raghav wants to check the camera further.
A camera is in Raghav’s hands once again. But 20 years are enough to change a lot of things. Raghav feels no love or passion for this beautiful body of wonder which used to be his lifeline. All that is left is curiosity, confusion, and one question; what does it have which he has been unaware of? He opens the camera. Oh, it still has a film; undeveloped. He tries to look through the negative but doesn’t understand anything. So he decides to go immediately and get the films developed.
 
The prints from that unowned camera are supposed to deliver today. The album of ‘Afghanistan Stories’ is placed on the table.
 
As soon as he hears the knock on the door, Raghav rushes to the door. The delivery boy hands him the envelope. Raghav opens the envelope and takes out the prints. Various landscapes are not making any sense to him. There are also some photos of a train compartment which Raghav doesn’t recognize. Nothing special or important he finds in these much-awaited prints yet. He is about to throw them on the sofa when he glances at the last print. It looks unusual. He doesn’t believe his eyes. Narrowing his eyes, he takes a deeper look. The last photo of that mysterious camera shows a woman being hit by a gigantic truck at the edge of a bridge. Not only falling from the bridge seems familiar, he knows the face of the woman as well. She is Raghav’s wife, Leena. This photo was taken at the very moment when the dreadful accident happened.
 
Raghav stares at the photo, lifelessly. For the first time in 20 years, he comes to know the truth; the truth which he refused to listen when his 6-year-old son was trying to say. So today, the truth shows up and Raghav has to face it. He sits on the sofa with prints still in his hands. He feels gulp in his throat. Tears edge his eyes. All his life he has been a stubborn man. Everyone who knew him said so. But how can one be so stubborn that he couldn’t even see what killed his wife? And not only that, he assumed based on his own failure as a family man. His mind was full of prejudice and he missed not even a single second and rushed to his dying wife to curse her. Her weakness didn’t allow her to defend herself and to convey the truth.
 
Today, only one photo is enough to know the truth of his life. ‘Can you take the car and pick Jay from the station? I am busy today.’ Raghav remembers him saying these exact words to Leena. And she did what he had asked for. Leena was never trying to kill herself. She wanted to live with him. She never wanted to dump the responsibility of their son on his chest. All she was doing was going to pick up their son because Raghav was busy as usual and unable to take some time out for his son as always.  
 
It is too late to regret and shed tears of sorrow. Raghav has no shoulder to cry on. He has pushed everyone away from his life. He chose it; living all alone and dying the same way.
 
Raghav gets up and walks to the wash basin and looks into the mirror. Today he realizes that Leena was never a coward. The face he is seeing in the mirror speaks of the actual cowardice; apart from all his limitations and frustrations chose to keep going the way he wanted it to be. He was afraid of change. Improvisation meant acclimatizing to new and he disliked it. What was already there was enough for him. According to him, wife and son had fixed roles. He wouldn’t expect anything from them so how could they expect anything from him? He never saw the family life from his family’s point of view. One weirdly contradicting philosophy Raghav lived with; not being the clichéd husband and father and going with the norms without having to change.
 
Leena and Jay tried to accept him and moulded themselves in accordance. But every situation has limited time to take shape. Once the process of shaping runs out of time, it has to be replaced. For Raghav, he failed to give love to his family in whatever time he had and his family was replaced by emptiness.    
 
Aatish knocks on the door and pushed it. It is already unlocked. Raghav is still on the sofa with prints in hands.
 
“You found it,” says Aatish. “I told you.”
 
Raghav doesn’t answer. “What’s wrong with you?” asks Aatish. Still no answer.
 
Aatish walks to Raghav and takes the prints from his hands. He realizes what has just happened. He sits beside Raghav. After the silence of a few long minutes, Raghav speaks, “She… she didn’t kill herself. And I cursed her till the moment she died.”
 
Pointing to the photo, Aatish says, “You should have listened to your son at least.”
 
The tears roll down Raghav’s face. e wipes his tears. He says, “I want to talk to Jay.” His voice has hopes. “But where can I find him?”
 
Aatish is surprised to see the suddenly changed version of this old man. He nods and takes some time to think about the solution. An idea strikes his mind. He takes out the phone from his pocket and dials a number. He says, “Meeraya, can you come here? I am sending you the address.”
 
“Meeraya,” says Raghav. “Is your daughter here?”
 
“She is in the town for a vacation. Maybe she can help us.”
 
 “How?” Raghav asks further.
 
 “Technology.”
 
“Jay Wadia is the full name,” says Aatish. While Meeraya is searching for Jay on Facebook on her phone, Raghav is observing with surprise. For him, a phone is still a device only to dial the numbers. There is a number of Jay Wadia on the list; some were young and some were old. Aatish tells Raghav to take a look.
 
Raghav takes a step back. “I don’t recognize my son.” He sounds disappointed.
 
Meeraya asks, “He was in some boarding school, right?”
 
“Yes, Stephen’s School for boys,” replies Raghav.
 
Meeraya goes back to her phone and searches for the school. She also finds the contact number of the school. Without informing Raghav or Aatish about her next step, she walks out of the house. The two men look at each other, puzzled. They crane to look out when Meeraya appears at the door.
 
“He is still in Delhi, working in some MNC,” she breaks the news.
“How do you know?” asks Raghav, everything is still beyond his understanding.
 
 “Technology,” she says.
 
 Aatish elevates his eyebrows at Raghav.
 
“So I will go to Delhi,” says Raghav. Almost everyone agrees. This man is finally meeting his son as a father.
 
“Uncle,” says Meeraya. “I am going back to Delhi the day after tomorrow. Let me find your son. I will bring him here if that is fine with you.”
 
“Can you do it?” asks Raghav hopefully.
 
“I can try,” she says.
 
Raghav nods with a smile. “Just tell him to listen to the old man.”

After Meeraya leaves, Aatish stays at Raghav’s place to take the ‘Afghanistan Stories’ album. Raghav says, “Why are you doing this for me?”

Aatish says, “You are true to yourself, Raghav. You always have been. You were never a family man and you knew it. You never tried to fake anything. You have been pathetic, but you know who you are.”

Raghav widens his eyes but smirks. “Yeah yeah. I know that. But still, if I am a pathetic one then why would you and your daughter help me?”
 
“I don’t know.”
 
“I am sorry Ma’am but Mr Wadia is in the meeting. I would have to ask you to sit and wait for a while,” informs the receptionist.  
 
“Please inform him that I have a message to convey. It is from Mr Raghav Wadia,” Meeraya requests.
 
 In less than 10 minutes, Jay came out of the conference room and looks at the woman who seems to be waiting for someone. Jay comes near Meeray and says, “I am Jay. I believe that you are looking for me.”
 
“Oh yes,” says Meeraya with twinkling eyes. “I am Meeraya Das. My father and your father have worked together for years.”
 
Jay gives an attentive nod. Meeraya gives him a packet, “I have brought something.”
 
Jay opens the packet on the spot. His old camera and the very first photo he had taken with the camera were there in the packet. “Yes. This is my stuff.”
 
 “Your father is asking for…”
 
“Look, Ms Das,” Jay interrupts her. “It was nice meeting you. I am busy right now. We can talk later.”
 
Meeraya smiles and says, “Totally understood.” Before she turns around, she speaks again,
 
“Your father was crying. You have never seen him crying I am sure.”
 
Now, this adds more to Jay’s uneasiness. How can someone come to him out of nowhere and talks about the father who stranded him 20 years ago and never called back?
 
“Meeraya… Why are you doing this?”
   
“He is of my father’s age,” she clarifies. She reaches into her bag and takes out a photo. “I never wanted to do this, but I think you should know this now.” She hands him the photo; the photo which shows Jay’s mother’s death.
 
Jay looks at the photo with shock.
 
 “This is why he wants to meet you,” she says briefly.
 
Jay shakes his head, “No no. This can’t be happening.”
 
“He never knew it, Jay.”
 
“But I tried to tell him on the very day when my mother died. But what did he do? He…” Jay stops there. “Please Meeraya, I can’t do this.”
 
“He has been living with guilt all his life. No amount of alcohol can console a person’s aching heart. Don’t let him die the same way. Let him say sorry at least. He is your father,” she says.
 
“The father who shooed me away as soon as my mother died,” he said absent-mindedly.
 
“He was scared. He thought that his wife killed herself because she was not happy with him. And he didn’t want to give you the life full of disappointments nor did he want you to grow a man like himself. So he saw an option and he sent you away,” she argued.
“You don’t know anything,” Jay defends himself.
 
“Right. I didn’t know him and I don’t know you. But I can notice the similarity between both of your behaviours. Five minutes ago, you were too busy to even ask about your father’s well-being. You are becoming him.”
 
“You know what, let’s not talk about this. I never had a normal family life,” says Jay concluding the matter.
 
But she refuses to give up, “I was 9 when my parents got divorced. My father didn’t even fight for my custody. He simply gave me away. He clearly didn’t want me with him. But he is still my father. So you don’t get to talk to me about the normal family life. Everybody has a life, a story and an example to give. So stop taking yourself seriously and listen to the old man.”
 
Jay doesn’t react. He just sighs.
 
“The address is still the same. See him if you are not too busy. Let the old man talk his heart to someone who is still his family.”
Raghav’s bed is placed in the front room. The door opens slowly. Raghav tries to get up. A young man shows up at the door. Raghav tries to recognize him. His heart beats are racing now.
 
The man comes closer to him and says, “Dad.”
 
Raghav signs to bring the chair near the bed. Jay sits facing his father.
 
“I am sorry,” Raghav initiates in shaking voice. “I wanted to say a few lines before you go.”
 
“Dad, it is really not…”
 
“Let me finish. I don’t have much time,” says Raghav. “All my life, I have just cursed; people, myself, my life and what not. But I am sorry that I didn’t listen to you. I am sorry that I never kept your mother happy. And I am sorry that I couldn’t be your father. You have all the rights to hate me. But just… let me say that I deeply apologize for not being the family man which you all had deserved.”
 
Jay touched Raghav’s bony hand. Raghav continues, “My life was never perfect. But I wanted to die with a clear conscious which I still find difficult to gain, but thank you for coming.”
 
“Dad, why are you saying this?” Jay asks hastily.
 
“Never become a man like me, son. Whatever picture you saw of me was not ideal. So stay conscious about it and be a whole different person. A person who you can love and your child can be proud of,” Raghav says. “And yes, about my health, open the drawer in the TV cabinet and take the GM Hospital’s file. It has every single detail of my liver cancer and the stage I am in.”
 
Raghav goes to sleep. Jay observes his father. His empty heartaches. He knows that he is going to stay there and wait for his father to open his eyes. He wants to look at him in his eyes again and tell him that his son is still there.
 
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