Amol’s sleek red Toyota car entered the driveway of his Delhi based palatial bungalow. Spread over an area of three acres, with lawns all around it and a dense forest-like plantation at the periphery, the house was flanked on the front side by a row of majestic eucalyptus trees. The car stopped at the porch and the driver immediately got down to open the car door for his master.
Bahadur, the watchman also came and gave Amol a lavish salute. “Everything okay?” Amol asked casually, while gathering his coat and briefcase. The fresh blast of air which whiffed past him seemed heavenly after being closeted in his air-conditioned room throughout the day. Raman, another elderly servant who had been with the family for over twenty years now, rushed himself to collect his master’s belongings. Amol walked up to his first floor bedroom.
The interior of the house displayed affluence, with the décor being a blend of both, antique and contemporary. Everything visible was expensively ornate. A retinue of servants sweated and toiled to keep the massive seven-bedroomed house in order.
Amol entered the bedroom and called out to Vanita, his wife. She answered from the dressing room where she was busy doing up her hair, oblivious to the surrounding happenings. Gently patting her on her back, Amol, after the greetings, asked her whether she had managed to speak to Ankush, their son. The boy had just appeared for his board exams. He was the younger of their two children, three years junior to their daughter Seema, who was pursuing a course in architecture at Kharagpur.
“No, Amol,” Vanita replied while still closely following her reflection in the mirror, and examining her hair-do. “Ankush wanted to go to watch a film, and I could not refuse. There was really no time to have a chat with him. And he would be coming back late.”
“Going somewhere?” he asked her.
“Yes, Natasha has invited me for a drink. She has been elected President of the Women and Life Society. I am already late-. My hair-do okay?” She hurriedly got up from the dressing table stool.
“Yes, dear, very pretty. But you should have talked to him. And I had also thought of talking to him today. It will be difficult for me to find time again,” he said laconically. “The boy must learn to behave himself. His intoxicated behaviour last night at the party was embarrassing, wasn’t it? Imagine, he is already an alcoholic- and then the movies, joy rides, heavy partying-. It worries me sometimes.”
“Don’t worry too much! We’ll discuss it later. I am off now,” she spoke with a hint of impatience.
“Ouch!” Amol cried out in pain as he cut his finger while opening a beer can. “Could you wet a napkin and give it to me please!” He sucked his injured finger with a mournful look.
“Please do it yourself, I have just applied nail polish.” Vanita was already halfway down the stairs before he could reply. On her way down, she hurriedly gave last-minute instructions to Raman, “Serve Sahib* his dinner if I am not back by nine.”
Raman was used to such instructions.
Amol meanwhile had managed to band-aid his finger and pour himself a mug of beer. Sitting on the rocking chair, he was reminded of the time by the hourly chimes of the musical clock. There was an hour before he had to leave for a meeting with his client at the Shalimar Hotel. “It would be incredible if today evening’s deal came through! If only his partner, Joseph, could come up with his best marketing abilities to convince their client-,” Amol mused.
He was brought back from his engaging thoughts by shouts from across the ground floor lawns. He pulled the window curtain aside, and peered out. The gardener was yelling at his assistant. Amol gestured to him to tone down and made his way to the cupboard. The transaction money for the deal was lying there. He picked up the briefcase with the money and went to the adjoining room, which was their prayer room. Having unlocked the briefcase stacked till the top with high denomination currency notes, he commenced the final count of the money in front of the deity. There had to be God’s blessing’s in tonight’s deal. Amol had always resorted to the deity whenever he had to clinch a business deal. Moreover, divine intervention was particularly needed in this case.
Just then, Raman entered the prayer room with a letter. He was the most trusted servant in the house, and was treated also almost like family. Raman was very used to seeing bundles of notes come and go out of the house. That is why he took the liberty to enter the room without hesitancy. “Sahib, this letter is from Seema bitiya*. I gave it to memsahib*, but it is still unopened.”
“Thank you, Raman,” responded Amol while taking the letter from him. His daughter’s behaviour always worried and confused him. He could never understand her. Since the time she had gone to Kharagpur for the course two years ago, she had visited home only twice, and that too for short durations. He slit open the letter- a formal note informing them of her well-being and a few lines about her studies. Having read through it, he propped it on the shelf. Another thing which always baffled him was her not wanting to just pick up her mobile phone and talk. She always wanted to communicate by writing letters.
He didn’t have much time before the meeting. Also, he had to collect some relevant papers from the office. Gulping down the beer, he rushed down.
“Will you have dinner at home, sahib?” Raman inquired as Amol dashed out.
“No. I’ll have it at the hotel. I will be late.” He rushed to the car.
Raman shrugged his shoulders and walked back to his kitchen.
( 2 )
It was past midnight when Raman returned home. To his surprise, the bell was answered by his daughter, Seema. Taken aback and surprised, he spontaneously hugged her, “What a surprise!”
Seema affectionately rushed to embrace him, “How are you, Daddy? I thought I wouldn’t go to sleep till you returned.”
“Ah- it is wonderful to see you here! Hope all is well? Holidays?”
Going inside the house, Seema informed him about the indefinite strike in her college and that she and her friends had decided to go to Shimla for a few days. “We leave tomorrow night.”
Amol frowned, “You should have planned to stay here with us for a few days, Seema. Anyway, let me give you some good news. You are never home to hear of things first-hand. I have struck a deal which is worth ninety crores.” There was excitement in his voice.
“I’m sure it’s a big day for you,” was Seema’s disinterested comment.
“Yes, of course. Call Ankush. Let him know about it.”
Amol was slightly drunk. In the excitement of having clinched the deal, he had over-indulged in the whiskey at the dinner following the meeting.
Seema was subjecting her father to a keen scrutiny. He had changed a bit- the hair was greyer, and the face had a few wrinkles. But otherwise he looked the same wealthy businessman. Money was still his first love. Seeing his slight drunken stupor, Seema had already started climbing up the stairs to her room. “Mama’s not back from her party. She rang up to say that she would spend the night at Somani Aunt’s and Ankush has gone to bed.”
Amol sat down on the couch with a bit of difficulty. “Go to sleep then, dear. You must be tired. We’ll talk in the morning. Goodnight!” He spoke with a mild slur.
Seema somehow got the odd feeling of being unwanted. Her surprise coming home had really not made any difference to anyone. Each was so engrossed in his or her own self. She went to her room and not feeling sleepy, tried to settle down with a book.
It was past nine in the morning that her mother came to her room and woke her up.
“Seema, I am so happy to see you at home. Sorry, I couldn’t come back last night, Somani just wouldn’t let me go.”
“It’s all right, mama. Yes, it is a good feeling to be home.”
“Come down- breakfast is laid.” Vanita went to Ankush’s room to rouse him also.
When Seema walked down, the first thing she did was to run to her grandmother’s room. The bedroom door was shut, and Raman informed that Dadi* was still sleeping. A bit frustrated, she made her way to the dining room. Her father was sitting at the breakfast table, with the newspaper.
He queried light-heartedly, “Hello, Seema, had a good sleep? I decided to go late so that we could spend some time together.”
“So nice of you, Papa,” Benu replied, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“And what a pleasant a surprise this is! You here! But I’m not happy that you are leaving at night. It’s been ages since you last came!” Vanita spread some butter on a toast and passed it to her.
“Mama, our plans are made. May be next time..”
Breakfast was at a leisurely pace. Ankush had joined and was busy relishing his breakfast. Vanita, seeing that Seema was not paying attention to her plate, coaxed her to have more bread and eggs.
“I may be back late today- we have to finalise the deal papers,” Amol announced getting up from the table. “I must rush now. Seema dear, drop in at the office – we’ll say bye-bye then.”
Vanita too got up to get ready for the weekly meeting of her Ladies’ Welfare Group. And Ankush was going out with his friends.
Seema felt pleased that she would be left to herself. She was struck by the realization of the scant rapport enjoyed with her family, and was happy that she had planned to be leaving for Shimla tonight. She was amused at the thought that none of the family really knew each other. It appeared to be a polite arrangement.
Within half an hour, there was no one in the house but for her, the servants, and of course, her grandmother, who spent most of the time in her room keeping herself occupied with her prayer books. Seema had always felt very attached to her and she occupied a major portion of the memories of her childhood. She so vividly remembered the chatting sessions they used to share together.
“Dadi, where are you?” she called out loud, entering her room. An eager voice responded from the bathroom, “Is that Seema bitiya*?”
The room was sparsely furnished. On the wall opposite the bed, was a large portrait of a saint. Seema made herself comfortable on the relaxing chair. She felt at ease here. Dadi came out from the bathroom and seeing Seema perched on the chair, limped forward excitedly.