Letter from Daddy
NORMALLY, after school, Sunil waited for her in the general merchants' shop across the street. The shop's owner, a jovial Sikh named Harpreet Gill, was fond of him and only too happy to offer chocolates and other goodies. Furthermore, the shop's cool interior was a welcome relief from the oppressive Delhi heat.
But that afternoon, Maheep found him standing on the pavement outside the school. She was relieved. The ancient Fiat, she was driving, had begun to stall, which meant the engine was about to pack up. She wanted to get the car home, before that happened. She didn't want to waste precious minutes, honking for Sunil to come out of the shop.
Sunil placed his school bag on the car's backseat, and then got in to sit beside her. He was a slim, light-skinned boy of seven, with hair cut close to the scalp. Normally, after school, he was bursting with all kinds of vignettes about his school day. But that day he sat, with his face drawn, staring fixedly out the window.
"How was school?" Maheep asked, finally.
He continued to stare out the window. Maheep glanced at him. He usually behaved that way after some altercation in school; a row with a classmate or harsh words from the teacher. Well, whatever it was, it would have to wait. Right now, she needed to nurse the car home, before it died on her.
"Mummy, are we really Sikhs?" Sunil asked.
The question caught Maheep by surprise. She looked at Sunil, wondering if it was some sort of joke. But his face was serious.
"Of course," she said. "But why do you ask that?"
"Gurpreet says we can't be Sikhs, because I don't have long hair."
"Who is Gurpreet?"
"Gill Uncle's nephew. He was running his shop for him today."
Maheep took a deep breath.
"Of course we are Sikhs," she said. "You don't have to have long hair to be a Sikh. Look at Dharmendra, Sunny Deol... "
"But in all the pictures I have seen of Daddy he has a turban and beard."
"Daddy also cut his hair before he left for Dubai. What matters is what you are inside, not how you look on the outside."
Sunil didn't appear convinced. Maheep changed the subject.
"There's a letter from Daddy today," she said. "In it he wrote a special note for you."
A smile appeared on Sunil's face.
"Is he coming home?" he asked.
"No, he can't get leave right now. He has to stay in Dubai."
Sunil's smile disappeared. His eyes fell to the floor. Looking at him, Maheep could see that Amrik's letters were no longer good enough for him.
They didn't speak the rest of the way home. Maheep sighed in relief, when they made it. But as she started to park the car, the engine stuttered and fell silent. Despite her best efforts, it refused to start again.
They left the car where it was and made their way up the stairs to their flat. They lived in a one-bedroom Delhi Development Authority flat. Maheep's mother Dalbir opened the front door to let them in. She hugged Sunil, asking him questions about his day in school. Sunil talked to her for a few minutes. Then he started to go to change out of his school uniform.
"Don't you want to read Daddy's letter?" Maheep said.
"I'll read it later," he answered.
After he was gone, Dalbir turned to Maheep.
"You will have to tell him," she said. "You can't hide the truth forever."
Maheep didn't respond. Instead, she told Dalbir that she had to get back to the office. Dalbir said she had to go back home by six. Maheep promised to be back before that.
She descended the stairs slowly. She was tired and the prospect of riding a hot, crowded bus for close to 30 minutes was less than inviting. But she knew she had to return to her office. Already her boss, in the company where she worked as a typist, had warned her against missing work. She couldn't afford to get any further into his bad books.
She came out into the street, her eyes squinting in the face of the sun. The driver of an autorickshaw, parked next to the pavement, eyed her hopefully. But she passed him by. An autorickshaw would be faster and far more comfortable than a bus. But it was the end of the month, and she needed to conserve her resources.
How differently everything had turned out from what she had imagined. When they moved into the flat in 1984, things had looked so different. She was pregnant with Sunil then. Amrik had just received a promotion in his job at the bank. The flat was small, but at least it was their own place. (Before they had been living with relatives.) The Fiat Amrik bought was also secondhand, with a dodgy engine. But, as Amrik said, that was only the beginning. In a couple of years, he would receive another promotion, then another... The tiny flat, the old car... All that would be a memory. This was base camp. They were on their way to the summit.
Yet seven years later, they remained stuck in base camp. And that too barely. With the trouble she was having making ends meet, Maheep wondered how long she could keep them there.
It had all changed the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. That night someone drew a cross, with a piece of chalk on the wall next to their front door. Later, Maheep learned that was to indicate that it was a Sikh home. As if on cue, the mob stormed their flat the next morning. They beat Amrik with crowbars. She pleaded with them for his life. They could have whatever they wanted from the flat. But they should let him go, if not for her sake, then for their unborn child. But Amrik's assailants were not to be dissuaded. They emptied a can of petrol on him, and then set him on fire. Maheep tried her best to beat the flames down. But she could not. In front of her eyes, Amrik burned to death.
She hadn't been able to tell Sunil that. Instead, she had spun a story about his father working in Dubai. To lend credence to her story, every two weeks she penned a letter and passed it off as one from Amrik in Dubai. But now she knew she couldn't keep that up much longer.
Today Sunil had wondered about his hair. Tomorrow he might wonder about his Hindu-sounding name. Or maybe he could ask why they were living the way they were in a cramped flat, with a creaky car and tight spending money. Other families, where fathers worked abroad, certainly didn't live like that.
Yes, soon she would have to tell Sunil the truth about his father. Watching Amrik burn to death had been the worst experience of her life. Telling Sunil about it promised to be no better.
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