"Didi! Bandh karne ka time ho gaya hai."
Startled, I glanced up from my book and found the chaprasi hovering above me. I looked around and found the library bare except for a few students who were now getting ready to leave.
Quickly transferring the book inside my bag, I slinged it over one shoulder and walked out. The college campus which had been bustling with activity until a few hours ago, now looked somber.
Wearily I glanced at my watch, a 'Titan Raga' gifted by my father three years back.
I started tapping my feet. It was too early to go back to that house which I once called my home. Also there were no friends who I could go to. After all I had closed that chapter of my life long back.
Turning the key into ignition, I started my bike. One advantage of being born and brought up into a small city is that you know every lane and alley as well as the back of your palm. So after wandering around aimlessly for an hour or so, I finally slid in through the gates of ' Shanti Niwas', the house where I grew up. It was named after my mother but unlike the name, I found no peace living here.
As expected Smita Aunty opened the door for me and burst out, "Where were you? We were so worried!"
Instead of answering, I stubbornly kept numb and started up the stairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I stealthily glimpsed my father sitting on the sofa, observing me silently with...was that sadness which I detected in his eyes?
I refused to delve into it!
Over dinner, Smita Aunty placed a small bowl in front of me and said," I have prepared your favourite kheer."
As I stared at the white desert, a lump formed in my throat. Ma used to make it for me whenever I felt low or happy. The last time she had prepared it was just two days before her...
No. Stop it!
Taking a deep breath, I choked back my tears. I saw Smita Aunty taking the seat adjacent to that of my father's and a maddening fury engulfed me.
That place belonged to Ma!
Shaking with rage, I stood up and ran upstairs to the sanctity of my bedroom. Once inside, I strode to the family photo adorning my bedside table. It was taken six years ago, on my birthday.
Slowly I ran a finger across it. As I reached my mother's smiling face, my hand paused to feel the smoothness of her cheeks and breathe in her familiar scent.
Oh, Ma! Why? Why did you leave so early?
As of its own accord, my eyes darted towards the calm and composed profile of my elder sister.
Oh, didi! How I wish you were here to hold my hands and say that everything would be alright.
Through a haze of tears, my eyes fell on a piece of paper kept besides the photo. Curious, I picked it up and immediately recognized the handwriting. I started reading.
My dear Ashu,
You must be surprised to find a letter from your father. After all, letters are written to someone staying afar. No one writes a letter to a person staying under the same roof, isn't it?
Unfortunately, things have changed between us in the past one year. Though God knows, I had never wished for it. So many times I had tried to approach you but you always invented ways to shut me out of your life, the same way you chose to cut off all your friends.
Yes, beta I know all about it. We may not be speaking much but that doesn't mean that I have stopped caring about you. And that's the reason why I am writing this letter to you. You never gave me a chance to explain, to listen to my side of the story. Please let me do that now.
Darling, I loved your mother. I know you may find it hard to believe, but it's as true as the stars shining above. Her diagnosis left me shattered. I did whatever I could and left no stone unturned for her treatment. You saw that for yourself, didn't you?
A terminal illness such as that of your mother's not only wipes away the patient but also plays havoc with the bodies and minds of his caregivers.
Five years is a long time! You only saw bits and pieces of your mother's illness but I lived with her through it all.
It's not easy to accept the death of someone who you have spent half of your life with. I was slowly sinking into depression. It was then that Smita came into my life. She was the anchor that I held onto during those turbulent times.
However, looking back now I realize what a selfish father I have been!
I left my children alone to deal with their grief. In fact, I was relieved when I saw you sisters trying to find solace in each other after your mother passed away. And then came your sister's wedding. I saw you smiling again and reassured myself that all was well. How could I be so pig headed!
As a father, I failed to see you struggling through your loneliness. I failed to see the pain behind your rebellions when I got myself married to Smita.
Too late, but I now know how you feel beta. Not a day goes by when I don't curse myself for pushing you to the brink of despair.
Also I won't ask you to accept Smita. Because I know you are old enough to decide that for yourself.
All I want is my little girl back, the bubbly chatterbox who used to come running to me for her tiniest problems and baked cakes for me on my birthdays. I miss those late night conversations and our weekend trips to the ice cream parlor.
You see beta, Papa still loves you as much as he did before, only much more now.
Can you find it in your heart to forgive this selfish papa of yours?
Come back to me beta. Please!
Smita Aunty came in our lives one year back. Exactly two years after my mother passed away and one year after my sister got married. Somewhere in between I had lost myself.
With the letter clutched tightly in my hand, I ambled towards the balcony. There he was, waiting for me.
I was finally home!
Manideepa Lahiri, is an engineer by profession but currently a stay at home mom to two beautiful children. Being an avid reader, she reads anything and everything that catches her attention. She started writing a year back and now it has become a passion for her. She likes to pen down her thoughts in the form of short stories. The above story by her has won her the Editor's Choice Category recognition for the #poetryandproseprompt for the celebration of #fathersday in the year 2020.