A Lost Girl
by Sharmila Roy Ghosal
Leh the city was teeming with foreigners, the magic of the place seemed to beckon people year after year. The moon-like landscapes, desert mountains with splashes of green and snow peaks, monasteries and stupas made one feel far removed from this world.
Dr Niladri Datta shifted in his chair. It had been a long arduous day with a line of patients coming in one after the other. He needed rest.
Niladri rang the bell on the table. Ananda, his most trustworthy assistant, peeped in.
“No more patients today. It is past 2 pm". Niladri pointed to his watch.
“There is only one patient. Lily Desouza, and she doesn’t look very well.” Ananda said.
“Okay, send her in fast”. Niladri started gathering up his things.
He stared at her almost speechless, dark circles under her eyes, a few bruise marks on her forehead and lips, her hair limp and lank. It was Madhumita, his wife. She was limping, possibly she had sprained her leg.
Madhumita was running a temperature; her X-ray report said, however, that she did not have any broken bones.
“Hello, doctor how are you?” Madhumita’s voice was barely a whisper.
Niladri wrote out the prescription. He pretended not to recognize her. "Let me know how you feel”. He said and walked out of the clinic.
Niladri sat near the window in his house and stared out, he had not been able to eat a morsel. He thought of the woman in his clinic who was still his wife since there had been no divorce, the woman who made him the butt of ridicule for all, exactly five years ago.
Niladri looked at the sleeping form of his new wife on the lower berth of the Doon Express and smiled complacently to himself. All his friends, the doctors at the hospital where he worked, his relatives all seemed a little jealous of him. Madhumita, his wife, was exquisitely beautiful, fair, with long lustrous hair. When she smiled, dimples on both cheeks were visible. Niladri smiled contentedly to himself. The marriage had taken place just seven days after he met Madhumita at his aunt’s house. Madhu’s father had approached Niladri’s aunt through a neighbour who lived next to her.
As soon as Niladri had consented to the marriage, Madhu’s father was in a haste to fix the marriage date. Niladri didn’t get a chance to date Madhumita or exchange views with her, but he had no complaints. Madhu was a good wife, going about her everyday chores nonchalantly, with no tantrums or demands
They were on their way to Darjeeling for their honeymoon, a belated one after four months of marriage. Madhumita was reluctant to go on a honeymoon since her father, a heart patient, was suffering from chest pain. It was on her father’s insistence that she ultimately agreed.
First, they would halt at Niladri’s uncle’s house in Kolkata. His uncle being too sick had not been able to attend their marriage in Dehradun. Next, they would take a train to Siliguri, and then in a jeep, they would go to Darjeeling. Niladri sipped at his coffee.
His eyes felt heavy, and he didn’t know when he had dozed off. His eyes flew open when the train stopped with a jerk at some station. He looked down from the upper berth. The curtain of the lower berth was drawn. ‘Poor thing must be tired and sleeping.’ Niladri thought.
He decided to go back to sleep. It was the crying of a baby that made him open his eyes.
He checked his watch, it was 9 am. He wanted some tea.
“Madhu, do you want some tea?” There was no answer.
Niladri got down and drew back the curtain of the lower berth. No one was there, only her bag of clothes sat on the berth in one corner.
His wife was not in the toilet, and the other passengers on the train could not help him in any way.
Dr Niladri Sen sighed, sitting in his room in Leh. He thought of the day five years ago when he had got down blindly from the train at Benaras. His frantic calls home had drawn a blank. Nobody knew anything back home about Madhu and her whereabouts. There were no ransom calls either. ‘A case of kidnapping’, Niladri thought. He had felt a pain rise in his chest before he lost consciousness.
It was Ananda, an assistant in the doctor’s clinic at Benaras, who took him inside the doctor’s chamber and had him thoroughly checked. There was nothing wrong with him, it was just stress.
As days passed by, a bond developed between Ananda and Niladri. He rented a house and set up a chamber in
Benaras. An orthopaedic surgeon of repute, there was no dearth of patients for him.
Four years back when Ananda decided to return to his roots in Leh after the death of his father, his mother being alone, Niladri decided to shift the base to Leh.
A fresh beginning, a new place would do him a world of good, Niladri felt.
“Saab”, Ananda, his man Friday and saviour stood with a cup of tea in his hand.
“Put it on the table”. Niladri said. He was not in a mood for conversation, he had not visited the clinic for the last two days, he felt unwell.
The doorbell rang.
“A woman called Mary Desouza is here to see you,” Ananda said.
She folded her hands in a namaskar. Yes, Niladri knew her, she was Madhu’s governess, someone who had looked after her since she was barely four years old, after the death of her mother.
She handed a letter to Niladri from Madhumita.
“A letter after five years?” Niladri scoffed.
He looked at the small boy with her. Who is this?
“I can explain everything if you give me a patient hearing”. Mary cleared her throat.
“Go ahead, make my day”. Niladri raised his hand. “Wait”.
“Before that, how did you two find me?”Niladri raised an eyebrow.
“Your photo with the health minister during the inauguration of a multi-speciality clinic in Leh” Mary tried to smile. “We came from Moradabad to Leh for you".
'Why after five years?' he wanted to say. 'Do I have more torture in store for me.?" But instead, he said.
“Okay, say what you have to. I am all ears”. Niladri’s eyes kept riveting to the little boy who sat quietly in front of him.
Mary started speaking.
“Madhu was a very lonely girl, in search of love. No mother at home, a father was always busy. A man called Robert, a journalist walked into her life when she was in college. Robert was involved in church services, and she met him in church when she accompanied me on Sundays to church. A kind, compassionate man, he won her heart instantly. Madhu’s father would not hear of it. Their religion was different".
“So I was made a scapegoat.” Niladri now understood the haste in which their marriage was arranged. “Where is Robert?” The little boy was fiddling with the paperweight on the table. His face looked familiar. Niladri frowned.
“On your honeymoon, Madhu was two months pregnant, she had wanted to be loyal to you and possibly forget Robert".
What was this woman talking about?
“Pregnant?” Niladri gasped.
“Madhu thought she would inform you about it in Darjeeling.” Mary paused and then continued.
“While on the train she received a message from Robert who wanted to meet her one last time, before migrating to the U.S.A. They decided to meet at Moradabad.” Mary said.
“What happened next? Did the lovers escape?” Niladri smirked.
“They never met. The train left the confines of the station but Madhu continued to wait. It was after an hour that she was informed by a
common friend that Robert died in a car accident while driving in haste to meet her.”
Niladri looked at the envelope in his hand while Mary continued to speak.
“The incident broke her, she felt responsible for Robert’s hasty driving that had led to his death. She felt she had cheated on two men together. She could not face you.
“The child was born in a hospital in Moradabad,
Madhu lived with me in my house and worked in a primary school in Moradabad. She used my surname for convenience. As days went on, Madhu became an alcoholic and gave in to frequent falls, her body became weak as she refused to eat a proper meal.”
‘The scars and bruises on her face were possibly due to the falls’ Niladri mused.
“What is the boy’s name?” Niladri smiled at him.
“Subho, he is your son.” Mary said
Niladri opened the letter. it was brief. It read.Life has brought us together again. But this time you will have no regrets. Subho is your son, you can have a paternity test done. In case, however, you want to discard him, Marydi will look after him, but I implore you to at least admit him to a good school so that he can qualify to be a good doctor, preferably a psychiatrist.
A lost girl.
Six years later Niladri waited in front of Subho’s school to pick him up. They were going to the Nubra valley, both father and son for a brief weekend. Niladri now knew what was familiar in that young face. He had seen his own reflection in him. ***