Large wooden beams had been erected the previous evening, along with banners and silk tables clothes, adorning the previously bare green park with countless stalls and counters. The annual bake sale was about to begin, and if the warm caramel smell wafting through the air was any indicator, it would be bigger success than last year.
Walking through the crowds, along the paved sidewalk, beneath the foliage of trees was Ananya Mohan, her pale face occasionally illuminated by meek rays of sunlight. Her long, thin nose, creamish high cheek bones and angular jaw seemed to have aged rapidly over the past few days, leaving her with a face that seemed to inflate her actual age.
Presently children of all age groups trooped past her, some carrying covered trays of cakes and cookies. None of them seemed to give her a second look, but then again, Ananya Mohan’s seeming invisibility was one that she had herself cultivated for the past year. She watched them brush past her, closing her eyes as she felt soft, nimble hands skim past her shoulder. She didn’t cry ; the darkened circles beneath her eyes indicated that she’d done enough of that the previous night.
Gliding past the crowds, Ananya Mohan surveyed the park dryly. She hadn’t planned on attending, but her husband had returned early from work, and this seemed an easier option than staying at home.
Her eyes caught sight of a young boy, standing slightly apart from an animated group of kids, busy talking amongst themselves. He could not have been more than 5 years of age, and Ananya found herself smiling as she watched him. He rubbed his eyes and yawned sleepily. With a flop of hair covering his forehead and a slightly oversized jacket enveloping his body, he looked bored.
He looked up and stopped rubbing his eyes. “Hi,” he replied politely.
“Are you here alone?” Ananya asked gently, wondering where the boy’s mother was.
He nodded his head, and looked away distractedly.
Ananya hesitated, not sure if the little fellow would be interested in talking to her. Then an idea came to mind.
“Would you like an ice cream?”
She chuckled as he eagerly devoured a chocolate cone, hopping slightly on his toes as he did so. “What’s your name?”
“Rahul,” he replied in between mouthfuls. “Rahul….Varma”
“Hi Rahul. My name is Ananya.”
“Thank you for the ice cream, Ananya aunty,” the well mannered boy said respectfully.
By the time the sun had set and the park was being slowly dismantled of stalls and counters, Ananya had spent an entire afternoon listening to Rahul’s stories. He talked animatedly about his angry class teacher, loyal friends, and his favourite cartoons. She listened with an intensity that would have surprised most other mothers in the neighbourhood. Every detail and incident Rahul muttered was met with satisfied laughs and delighted shrieks. Color returned to her cheeks, though the five year old boy was too young to know just how happy he’d made his new friend.
She finally stooped to her knees, and looked lovingly at Rahul, watching his eyes grow wide in anticipation.
“Next time, I’ll come for your class play? Would that be okay?”
He cried delightfully, and nodded his head vigorously.
“Take care Rahul,” she said, shaking his mop of hair, before he turned around and walked to his front door.
When Ananya Mohan entered her apartment, the remnants of a smile was still etched on her face. Her husband, who’d been preparing a meal, spotted the foreign expression, and wisely decided not to say anything that might scare it away. Instead, he watched her go into her room, and hoped his plan for the evening would turn out well.
Give her time, his friend had adviced him. Give her time to deal with the pain. And let her know you are there for her. Grabbing the simmering pan ful of French fries from the stove, he tossed them onto a plate, and hoped it would work. It was worth a try, he reassured himself, and went about setting the dining table.
Once the plates, spoons, drinks and candle lights had been set, he gently walked over to Ananya’s room. It still hurt him, having to call her out of a separate room, but they’d agreed it was for the best. They’d be sleeping together again soon, he reassured himself.
“Ananya?” he called out softly, knocking the door. “Dinner’s ready,”
His heart sank as he saw her lying on the bed, clutching a toddler’s t-shirt as tears trickled down her cheeks. He hovered in the doorway, unsure of what to do. Then, dropping his head in resignation, he proceeded to clear the table.
For the past three years, Aravind and Ananya Mohan had tried to have children. After the first few months had passed by, they began to worry, and like any concerned couple, consulted a doctor. Tests were conducted, several appointments scheduled. After a nervous few weeks, the smile carried by the doctor into his office turned contagious and infected the couple. There was nothing to worry about.
Unfortunately the doctor’s words didn’t extend to the labour room, when twelve months later, a frown carried out of an operation theatre broke the heart of Aravind Mohan, before moving into a hospital ward and destroying Ananya Mohan’s happiness. The sound of her laughter, the twinkle in her eye when she’d smile, none of it survived the wreckage. Mrs. Mohan returned home the next day, childless and hallow.
However, something was slowly changing in Ananya Mohan’s life once again. As she watched the amateur production of King Akbar and Birla, she felt it. As though she’d lost a huge burden. Her face produced smiles with unexpected ease, as though the countless frowns worn earlier had done no damage at all.
“Did you like the play?” Rahul asked breathlessly, glitter and paint still stuck on his face.
“Yes, I did. And you were brilliant!” she replied lovingly, embracing the little boy. Rahul beamed with pride for the rest of the day, never once complaining as his teacher scrubbed his face clean.
“This is for me?” he asked incredulously, a few weeks later. He stared at the red and cream colored jacket Ananya had just handed him. “I love it!” He declared, pulling it on quickly. “Wow, thank you Ananya!”
He gave her a peck on the cheek, and Ananya Mohan’s eyes quickly welled up. Standing up quickly, she looked away and mumbled, “I guess its time for you to go home now.”
She began walking, then stopped and turned around to see Rahul rooted to the spot. “What is it?”
“My mom’s not home. She’s at work.” He looked at her curiously, as though contemplating a question.
“Oh ok, then we’ll play in the park for a while till she gets back.” Rahul’s father had left when he was just 2 years old. His mother, Shweta Varma worked a corporate job that kept her occupied most of the time. Ananya couldn’t help but feel a pang of motherly anger towards Shweta. Instead of working ungodly hours at an office, she should be at home, spending more time with Rahul. Some women don’t realize what they have, she concluded sadly.
“Actually, you know something Ananya?” Rahul said, shaking her from her thoughts. “I think you are my mom.”
She stopped abruptly on the pavement, and turned to look at the young boy holding her hand.
“Yeah. I like you more. You come to see my play. My mom never comes. You buy me ice cream. My mom doesn’t know that I like chocolate, not vanilla. And you spend lot more time playing with me.” He grinned matter of factly. It was something he’d mulled over the past few days. Something that he’d thought of telling Ananya but always kept forgetting to.
“It’s like, you are a better Mom than my mom. Funny, right?”
He didn’t get a reply as Ananya suppressed tears and began walking briskly, dabbing her eyes with a hand kerchief.
Over the next three weeks, an idea began stewing in Ananya’s mind. At first it was merely a wishful thought, but slowly, as her evenings with Rahul grew longer and she began addressing the teachers at school on first name basis, Ananya found herself wondering the same question over and over.
Could she adopt Rahul?
So when Rahul invited her to come along with him for his class trip to the local circus, she lovingly replied, ”Of course I will, son.”
They had a merry time at the circus, Ananya generously taking Rahul to witness most of the shows. He clapped eagerly and laughed loudly, always exchanging a cheerful grin with Ananya.
“You know,” he said thoughtfully as they indulged on an icecream later, “I dont think my mom likes me as much as you do.”
“Well, I asked her yesterday if she would come along with me to the circus.”
“You did?” Ananya asked, wondering why she felt jealous suddenly.
“Yeah. But she said she was busy. She had work.”
On a Sunday? Ananya thought irritatedly.
“I was thinking of telling her,” Rahul continued, licking the last remains of his cone, “that you are my new mother now.”
Ananya laughed. “You cant tell her that,” she gushed, secretly wishing she could see the expression on Shweta’s face when she heard it.
“Why not?” Rahul asked curiously, looking up.
“Quick, look I think I saw a cat over there!” Ananya cried, pointing towards an abandoned warehouse. Rahul loved cats, and Ananya cleverly sighted one whenever she wanted to dodge his questions. It was a productive trick, since they ended up laughing and having a good time.
Presently, they were about to leave the warehouse, when the front doors opened.
“Quick, hide, someone’s coming,” Ananya whispered excitedly. She loved watching Rahul react. He would assume a curious expression, one of earnest excitement that made her want to kiss his reddened cheeks. She hugged Rahul and the two of them leaned against a dusty wooden shelf, hidden from view.
Ananya heard two pairs of footsteps walk slowly towards the corner of the warehouse, a few feet away from the shelf. Straining her ears, she groaned as she realized what the strange sounds echoing from the corner were. Teenagers getting busy.
Quickly covering Rahul’s ears, Ananya listened, wondering if they’d have to wait till the two youngsters lustiness was satisfied. Just then, she heard murmurs. Soft, whispered murmers that were hard to catch.
“….I cant…I’m sorry, but I just feel..”
“..dont blame yourself…no, no, I’m sorry….i just thought you’d want to…that’s all…”
“I do…but….I still love her…you know that right?”
“…I know…but how long dear? How long? She avoided you for so long…”
“…maybe she just needs more time…”
“…or maybe she doesn’t appreciate you enough…”
Rahul felt Ananya’s hands press against his ears, and he stood still, trying to contain his excitement.
“….how blind can she be, dear? You’ve been patient. You’ve been understanding….its not just her loss, is it? It’s yours too….why doesn’t she understand that?.....She doesn’t appreciate you the way I do….I know how important it is to love someone….to be there for someone….i cant bare to see you get ignored by her….come with me…..you, me….rahul….we can be happy together….”
“…I know…but I still love her…I cant just leave her like that...its not right...”
Rahul felt thick droplets splash onto his moppy hair. He tilted his head upwards, and caught sight of tears flowing down Ananya’s cheeks. Her mouth was open, her eyes welled up.
Later that evening, Ananya Mohan dropped Rahul Varma home for the last time. Before watching him leave, she bent on her knees, held his shoulders and gently repeated what she’s said earlier.
“Remember, Rahul, your mother loves you a lot. She just doesn’t show it. She gets carried away with her own thoughts, her own pain. But doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you, okay?”
Ananya Mohan returned home, with the remnants of a smile still etched on her face. She found her husband searching for the take out menu, and glided towards him. Planting a soft kiss on his cheek for the first time in months, she whispered.
“Why don’t we eat in tonight? I’ll cook."