The Silver Lining
The Silver Lining12 mins 188 12 mins 188
“Mama, mama….,” the heart-wrenching cries woke Ruthu from her deep sleep. She hurriedly got up and rushed to Amaira’s room. The little girl was twisting in her bed covers, tears streaming down her face. Ruthu kissed her on the forehead and gently tapped her back, murmuring, “I am here, darling. Go back to sleep.”
This seemed to comfort Amaira, as it had done almost every night for the past one month. Ruthu looked to the other side of the room and saw Anouk sleeping peacefully. Being older than Amaira, he thankfully seemed to be free of nightmares.
Ruthu got back to her room and lay down again. The three of them had gone through so many upheavals this past month. And tomorrow, tomorrow would bring yet another challenge in the form of the kids' grandfather. Unbidden, images of the past month flashed through her mind.
Five years ago, Ruthu had retired as the Principal of an exclusive and prestigious girls school. After her retirement, she had thrown herself wholeheartedly into all the activities she never had time for before. Pottery classes, singing lessons, laughter clubs, open-mic events, she attended them all. After her husband's death, she had continued to live in his ancestral home, a large sprawling villa in a quiet neighbourhood in Bangalore. But the neighbours made up for the solitude with their quirky habits, their parties and their ability to live life to the fullest.
At one such party, Ruthu had met Amar and Ameeta, a young couple, who lived in a swanky apartment close by. One thing had led to the other and Ruthu had found herself agreeing to take care of their kids for a few hours everyday evening. She would teach Anouk, who was 8, to play the piano and 4-year old Amaira would sit next to them with her dolls or colour pencils.
Ruthu had enjoyed their company and the kids were fond of her in return. After decades of being a strict disciplinarian at her school, she took this time to play the doting grandmother. Having no kids of her own, she had accepted Anouk and Amaira as her honorary grandchildren. This happy interlude came to a horrifying halt, the day Ameeta had called her from the hospital. Amar had tested Covid positive and was facing breathing problems. He was being rushed to the hospital. Ameeta requested Ruthu to have the kids for the night, as she had no other close family members to leave them with. One night had turned to ten and soon Ameeta was found to be positive too. It was early days of the pandemic, neither a vaccine nor a cure were readily available. In a horrible twist of fate, both Amar and Ameeta had succumbed to the disease, leaving their innocent kids with Ruthu.
Ruthu wiped the tears streaming down her face, a daily occurrence now. Though she considered herself quite strong, Amaira’s nightmares always broke her. After the last rites had been conducted by the hospital, Ruthu had contacted their only surviving relative. He was Amar’s father, Retd. Major. Shekar Kumar, who lived in Delhi. Unfortunately, Delhi was under complete lockdown and he had been unable to travel to Bangalore. Ruthu had spoken to the local authorities and convinced them that she would look after the kids until the Major could travel. Knowing her impeccable reputation and standing in the community, they had agreed.
Tomorrow, Major Shekar would be here. Ruthu knew from the kids that they were not very close to their grandfather. He lived alone in a retirement community in Delhi, with other army families. Amar and his family had visited him only once a year and for a very few days. Ruthu did not know what the next few days held. She hoped that the Major would be a kind man, who would take care of the kids. It was unthinkable for Ruthu if the darling children went to live with an uncaring dictator. Hoping for the best, Ruthu went back to sleep.
The next day, Retd. Major Shekar Kumar arrived on their doorstep. He had the regal bearing of an army man and was smartly dressed. He was tall and had salt and pepper hair. Unfortunately, there was no smile on his face when he saw the kids. He awkwardly patted them on their heads and stiffly handed gifts to them. The kids were distracted for the moment, but Ruthu’s thoughts were in turmoil. How would the kids adjust with this strict man, she wondered. But she convinced herself that she did not know him well enough to decide and the next few days would help them all to get to know each other. She had asked him to stay at her home to be closer to the kids.
A few days passed, but the situation remained the same. Major-saab, as she called him, sat sternly on a chair reading his newspaper. The children tip-toed around him as if worried that he might scold them. It had been a noisy house till the Major had come and suddenly everything was gloomily silent. Ruthu had tried to talk to him many times but had received only mono-syllabalic replies from him. Amaira continued to call out to her mother every night. Major-saab would wake up and watch from the door, but would never offer any words of comfort. But that night, things came to a head. When Amaira cried out, he had reached her room before Ruthu. From the doorway, in a stern voice he shouted,
“Go back to sleep child. You are old enough to sleep on your own. Don't be a baby.”
Hearing the harsh voice Amaira’s started to scream and even Anouk woke up from his sleep. Ruthu glared at the Major and ordered him to leave. She then had to spend a long time calming the distraught child. She was furious but decided to confront the Major in the morning. But the morning brought a different surprise. Major-saab came out of his room, with his bags packed.
“I will stay at Amar’s apartment, “he said in a gruff voice, “It anyways needs to be emptied. I will come to see the kids sometime.”
Ruthu was surprised. Though she knew that the apartment had to be emptied, she had not stepped into it as she had no right to do so. As she handed over the keys to Major-saab, she was sad that he was leaving without getting to know the kids better. But she also felt that a few days away may also be good for all of them.
The next couple of days went better, the kids quickly bouncing back to their chirpy self. Though they missed their parents, they somehow had been resilient in the time of crisis. Their online classes proceeded as usual and Ruthu helped them complete their homework and other assignments. Late in the evening on the third day, when the kids had gone to bed, she heard a knock on the door. Lalitha, her maid who stayed with her, went to open the door. Ruthu was shocked when she saw Major-saab entering her living room. But he did not look stern and stoic as he did on the other days. His eyes were blood-shot and his shoulders were hunched over. Ruthu did not wait, she quickly ushered him out through the back door. There was a well-tended garden at the back of the villa and a large swing sat on one side of it. Ruthu urged Major-saab to sit down and gently rocking the swing, she waited for him to speak.
“I am sorry,” he said, his voice cracking, “I don’t know where to begin. I have always been an army man, my country being my first love and maybe my family came next. Malathi, my wife, was the one who took care of Amar and Sara. she never complained that I was not there for her and maybe that made it easier for me to abdicate my responsibilities towards my kids. It is only thanks to Malathi, that Sara is a leading Biophysicist in the US now and Amar had his own startup here. But from the past three days in Amar’s house, I learnt how much I had missed. The photos adorning the walls, Anouk’s childish drawings that were hidden inside a drawer, Amaira’s baby clothes safely packed away made me realise the love Amar and Ameeta had shared with their kids and it was unimaginable for me to comprehend the loss in their lives now. I have always been selfish, an outsider, who did not lift a single finger for his home. I am sorry. I am sorry. I hope to do better for my grandkids from now on.”
At this, his voice totally broke. Sobs wracked his body and he covered his face with his hands. Ruthu could only sit there waiting for him to let out his grief. Once the tempest had passed, she slowly slipped her hand inside his and held it tightly in an offer of sympathy and support. Then they both sat on the rocking swing, each lost in their own thoughts as the night insects chirped from the bushes nearby.
The next day was a new phase for all of them. Major-saab tried his best to get to know the kids. There were many awkward moments, but Ruthu was always present to smooth them over. Luckily, Major-saab liked gardening and so they spent time in the backyard nurturing the plants. Major-saab also told stories of his time in the army. Anouk was in awe of him as he had newly developed a fascination for guns and the military. A few weeks passed and one evening, Ruthu found herself thinking about Major-saab at a personal level. He was as different from her former husband as one could be. Cyrus, her husband had been the life of the party. He was a jovial person, who had a loud laugh and loved to regale his friends with jokes and anecdotes. Major-saab, on the other had was a man of few words. There was no artifice about him and his manner was direct and sometimes brusque. But Ruthu could see his true nature when he was with the kids. Then a smile would light up his face and the creases on his forehead would straighten out. Ruthu smiled to herself. She was really getting used to this old man in her life.
Similar thoughts, but of a stronger nature were going through Major-saab’s mind in the next room. He found himself attracted to Ruthu’s flamboyant nature. His wife had been a calm dependable woman, whose starched cotton sarees and a big round red bindi were her trademark. But Ruthu was her antithesis. She wore what she called, wide cropped pants and checked collared shirts or sometimes she wore flowy skirts with elephants and other Indian motifs. She was loud. She gave freely and laughed joyfully. She was a joy to watch with the kids. Shekar wondered if they could have a future together. He had found himself lonely from the past few years and this brief time of happiness only made him yearn for me. He asked himself, if he had the guts to tell her of his feelings. He did not care much for what society would think, but he wondered if two strong people, who had been alone and independent for so long, could find solace with each other. But again, there was the matter of the kids and which of them would be a suitable guardian for them.
The kids would be starting their mid-term break in a few days. It was decided that they would accompany Shekar to Delhi for 2 weeks. It would be a break for the kids and a test to see if Shekar could take care of them on his own. The evening before the planned departure, Shekar and Ruthu sat on the swing as they did on most evenings after the kids went to bed. Before he could lose his nerve, Shekar turned to Ruthu and holding her hand said,
“Ruthu, there is something I need to tell you.” Ruthu looked at him enquiringly and nodded for him to proceed.
“Ruthu, these past few weeks have been a revelation for me and I wish this time of togetherness would never end. I may sound selfish, but I wish you would consider marrying me. We could then together apply for the kids guardianship.”
He sighed, “This is coming out all wrong. I do not want to marry you only for the kids sake. I find myself attracted to you. I had an arranged marriage to a wonderful woman for a long time and so these feelings are new and unexplored for me. But I want to know if you are willing to explore them with me.”
Ruthu sat shell shocked for a moment. Talk about unexplored feelings indeed. Before she could speak, Shekar continued, “I know it is too early Ruthu, this time apart will give us some time to think. Please consider. “
He went back inside leaving Ruthu to her thoughts. The next day Major-saab and the kids left for Delhi. The house which had never seemed too big for one person, suddenly fell too silent. Ruthu moved around the house restlessly. She missed Shekar’s deep baritone and the kids’ constant bickering. Ruthu sat on the swing and tried to come to terms with her feelings. She was attracted to Shekar too, but many things worried her. This was not the first crush of youth. Past experiences would colour their judgements. Staying in close quarters after being alone for many years would also cause problems. But then, again, it came down to the kids. They both filled different gaps in the kids’ lives. They both would have to adjust to provide a safe and secure environment for the kids to grow and thrive. Ruthu finally decided to stop thinking and get on with the living part of it. She packed her bags and booked her tickets to Delhi. She would surprise her new family and then see where they would all head together.
One year later :
Ruthu looked at herself in the mirror. She would not call herself a blushing bride, but she thought she looked pretty good in her red salwar. Sweet Amaira stood next to her in an identical salwar. What a year it had been, all of them learning to live together. The kids were happy and well- adjusted now and Amaira had very few nightmares. Shekar had taken her on dates too and because he hated public displays of affection, they had spent that time learning about each other. The affectionate parts they reserved for the night, when they sat on the swing and did what lovers in the first flush of love did. Ruthu blushed as she looked into the mirror. They had been very lucky and blessed that a tragedy had brought them all together and made a new family unit out of them. Then taking Ameeta’s hand she went to her car to drive to the Marriage Registrar’s office where Major-saab Shekar and Anoul were waiting for them to begin their new lives together.