Since When - contd
by Sunanda Chatterjee
Back to Page 1 of the story
Mina was brought up by her grandmother, since her mother had passed away during childbirth. Timid and shy, Mina had always craved for her father’s attention. Although her grandmother doted on her, Mina always felt the burning need to prove herself to her father.
But all she got was a guttural “Okay” from him, while he read the newspaper or got ready for work.
Bereft of a life-partner, Papa concentrated all his efforts on his business, leaving Mina to fill her idle hours with worry.
She was not a beautiful child, although her grandmother insisted otherwise. She had large saucer-like eyes rimmed by extra-short eyelashes and a pencil-thin nose, under which her heavy dark lips seemed incongruous. Her chin was too small and her forehead too wide. Did her father hate her because she was not beautiful?
Mina soon found out from a kind but insensitive neighbor that she looked just like her mother.
Maybe that’s why he ignored the little girl.
With Grandma busy in the kitchen and Papa always at work, she spent many hours in the garden, wondering how to make her Papa proud.
Her grandmother was illiterate and her father was always at work, but Mina needed little help in school-work. Mina’s second grade teacher told her that she was good at Math. Perhaps she had her father’s business sense.
Yes, when she grew up, she would go into business like her father. Then, maybe, she’d get his attention. Maybe he’d let her run his shop, like old Mr. Mehra who lived down the street.
The summer sun baked the earth while she was taking her eighth grade final exams. The Science exam was easy, and she didn’t need to study for Math. So she played with her friends until seven o’clock, when her grandmother beckoned her inside.
After a dinner of rice and lentil soup with curried vegetables, she had opened her schoolbag.
To her horror, she found the flap open. She retrieved her lunch-box, but her pencil-box was missing.
They were not wealthy. She had two pairs of school uniforms which she wore alternately. Each year, she bought used textbooks. She owned no color pencils or crayons. Her only school supplies were two pencils, an eraser, and a ruler, all prized possessions, which she kept in a metal pencil-box.
And she’d lost it. Papa was going to be so angry!
He had told her times were difficult, and carelessness was a luxury they couldn’t afford. The store was not making any profit, and lately, he had been grumpy and short-tempered.
She could dash to the local store and return before Papa got home. But she needed money.
“Grandma,” she said, “I need some money to go to the store.”
“What do you need at this time of night?” asked Grandma.
“I lost my pencil-box. I have my Math exam tomorrow.”
“There is no store in the colony open so late,
child. Wait until your father comes. He’ll take you to the main market.”
“But Grandma, he’ll be angry!”
“How did you lose the pencil-box?”
“I left the flap open,” she said, showing Grandma the schoolbag.
“That was careless of you, Mina. Wait for Papa. He’ll be home by nine.”
Her father’s routine was to have a cup of tea, take a shower, and then sit down for dinner, sometimes at midnight.
While Grandma made his tea, Mina sat on the small couch that served as a sofa by day and her bed by night. She had already chewed off her fingernails, and now squirmed in her seat and wrung her hands in nervous agony. Her father ignored her.
Did Grandma expect her to tell him about the lost pencil-box? Or was she going to bail her out this time?
While the water was boiling, Grandma came into the tiny area that served as their dining room. “Mahesh, you need to take Mina to the store to buy a pencil box.”
Mina closed her eyes and bore the tirade of reprimands as her grandmother tried to defend her. She felt warm breath on her face and opened her eyes.
Her father’s flushed face was inches from hers. “Didn’t I tell you to be careful with your things?”
“I… I’m sorry, Papa. I’ll work in your shop or something to pay for it. Please!”
Grandma intervened. “Who ever heard of such a thing? Mahesh, take her to the store!”
His dark eyes gleamed. “Maybe she should learn her lesson and miss her exam tomorrow.”
Mina started sobbing. Grandma said, “Mina is good at Math. You’d know if you paid the slightest attention to the poor girl. She’s an orphan in her own home. There’s only so much I can do!”
“I’m tired,” said her father, suddenly looking older. “I am trying to start a new store in the Civic Center in Bhilai. All the important people shop there. I’m sure to make profit there. I was in meetings with town managers all day.”
Grandma put her hands on her hips. “Since when did you become too important to take care of your daughter?”
Papa had stared at grandma and at glanced at Mina. Horrified, Mina lowered her eyes.
Finally he had asked, “Can I finish my tea first?”
They bought a new pencil-box from a stationery shop in the main market in Raipur. Returning home on her father’s scooter, Mina felt the rough material of his shirt against her cheek. She clasped her father’s waist tightly, her mousy hair blowing in the cool night breeze.
“I love you, Papa,” she had whispered softly to herself.
Much to her astonishment, he said, “I love you too.”
The kettle whistled and Mina’s mind raced back to reality. Her father stood by the doorway, hands still on his hips, his words still echoing in her ears.
She smiled at him and said, “Can I finish my tea first?” ***