It was December; winter had set in, pleasant climate with festivities all around on the eve of Christmas -most appropriate period for a short break away from the hustle & bustle of the city. Shruti & her dad looked out for some short tour packages but Shruti’s mom was of the opinion that they cannot escape crowded tourist spots especially during this time of the year & that was true.
Shruti’s dad came up with a wonderful thought – how about visiting Leena aunty & Shantanu uncle – his maternal uncle at Pune – it’s been a long time that we met them during one of the family weddings. Besides, they had not seen Shruti off late though they had seen her as a new born baby many years back. Sounds good – was a quick response from mom & daughter. Shruti’s dad immediately rang up uncle to check their availability; he was more than happy to know about the long week-end visit plan.
Shantanu uncle had shifted to Pune after his retirement. They stayed in a beautiful, well-furnished bungalow with well-maintained garden all around. Arrangement was such that if any of their children visited uncle & aunty, the bungalow could easily accommodate their individual families independently – very thoughtfully designed structure indeed!! But sadly, the couple used to stay alone almost throughout the year. Their eldest daughter was a bureaucrat & on duty at Japan with her husband. Their only son was well settled in Australia. Youngest daughter was a homemaker & lived in Singapore with her husband & 2 lovely kids. Despite having 3 children, uncle & aunty were lonely souls back home.
Shruti was eager to know more about aunty, she too was very happy to slip in her flashback. Aunty’s life was very different from a normal housewife. They stayed at Delhi. Uncle was initially in CBI, later at a very senior position in embassy. But at some point of time, aunty overheard a conversation between uncle & his colleague and got to know that actually her husband was a RAW (the primary foreign intelligence agency of India) agent. Going by the profession that he was in, this was a top secret not to be revealed even to uncle’s family members. Uncle took aunty in confidence & asked her to keep this to herself & never mention this even to their kids. Kids were always under impression that their dad was working for embassy.
The family had a lavish lifestyle – Govt. bungalows to stay wherever they stayed right till retirement, children admitted to well-known schools, maids to support all the household work, travel across different parts of the world due to transferable job of uncle. Thus for onlookers, aunty’s life as a homemaker was pretty cool. Only aunty knew about the dangerous nature of her husband’s job, she couldn’t confide her state of constant fear & concern even with her growing kids, leave alone the outsiders. What a pity! But aunty was a strong lady – had a very mischievous smile on that beautiful & delicate face & fragile body structure.
Normally life is considered to be difficult, when it is full of sacrifices & complexities, when lady of the house runs her household in dire conditions – income level below poverty line or the bread winner of the family down with malignant cancer or untimely death of the father survived by his wife & 2 infant kids. We never imagine that a rich household could ever have a tough time or pains in life. Aunty loved uncle a lot – this was a love marriage in those times when every marriage necessarily meant an arranged one. Uncle’s secret mission meant a business travel to his 3 lovely kids; only for aunty it was comparable to a hell. Many a times when the kids needed their father to be around, he was never there to support. Thus all the 3 children were very close to their mom, infact dependent upon her for their every small need – attending open house in school, choosing an appropriate college, confiding their love affairs in their teens etc. Due to risky nature of his job, uncle used to keep himself aloof, away from family, emotions. His profession had unknowingly made him very suspicious by nature. He loved his family too but tried to remain detached from them due to this constant fear that if he has to embrace death while on duty, his family should not be affected or collapse in his absence. Many a times, news of horrific deaths of his colleagues would disturb him in turn leading to those mood swings distancing him from his children who were totally unaware of his noble profession. Consequently, aunty had to play a dual role of a mom & dad in uncle’s absence. Aunty recalls ‘ye jeena bhi koi jeena hai’ – perhaps it was this mischievous nature of aunty that kept her going!!
Shantanu uncle had taken Shruti’s parents along with him for a short drive down to fish market. The trio returned home with a bag full of lobsters, crabs & pomfrets. This was indeed a treat – everyone in the family thoroughly relished fish recipes. Aunty gave instructions to Shyamala, her maid who was well trained in cooking fish recipes in our style.
After breakfast, uncle took Shruti’s parents for a walk through their well-maintained garden. Aunty being a bit fragile preferred staying back, Shruti accompanied her to her bedroom – she was eager to hear more about aunty.
Aunty again wore that mischievous smile as she became nostalgic – Shantanu was a very sweet person, caring & affectionate, a handsome hunk like Dharmendra – tall & well built. That is how I got attracted to him, ours was love at first sight, he was my brother’s friend. He used to come home for his Hema - that is me, chuckled aunty & my brother got to know this much later! Though love marriage was a very new concept those days, Shantanu convinced both our parents & we tied the knot. I was on the top of the world that day – to have someone you truly love as your life partner is bliss. I was proud of Shantanu – at such a tender age, he held a senior position in embassy. Thanks to his profession, we travelled across the world – China, Japan, Indonesia & many more Countries. Very soon, we were blessed with a baby girl; we named her Shanlee – combination of Shantanu & Leena. We were very happy & wanted to complete our family, thus Shreyas was born. There was a strong family bonding between all 4 of us. Both my kids had a lot of respect for their dad. Being ignorant of certain secrets was bliss!
Shaunak was talking to Shantanu in his study room & I overheard their conversation – their close colleague, Vishwas was beheaded by Pakistanis on that unfortunate day. I collapsed on hearing this; both Shantanu & Shaunak who were already very disturbed rushed to my aid. That is when I got to know about the dangerous nature of Shantanu’s profession. Entire burden of keeping this information a top secret was passed on by Shantanu to me.
After that incident of Vishwas, Shantanu gradually changed his attitude towards Shreyas & Shanlee – he wanted his children to be independent, God forbid if any untoward incident happened with him while on duty, he didn’t want his family to collapse. Thus he intentionally started distancing himself from both the kids. Obviously, the kids started slowly drifting away from their rather harsh, ever scolding, always unavailable dad. That strong bonding gradually weakened as days passed. Shanlee was in 5th standard & Shreyas in 2nd standard when I gave birth to the naughtiest child – our sweet Sharmilee, named after the famous Hindi movie.
Uncle & my parents had come back with all praises for the beautiful garden. Shyamala declared that the lunch was ready. Uncle went into the kitchen, arranged the plates well on the dining table, he was trying to help out his fragile sweetheart, his love & concern was clearly seen through some of his unspoken actions. Everyone was hungry, the meal was truly delicious. My dad asked about the children who were all well settled abroad – aunty mentioned that Shanlee calls us on Saturday at 10a.m & Sharmilee on Sunday at 9a.m. There was no mention of Shreyas hinting that he rarely visits them in Pune & there is no contact otherwise. Couldn’t help thinking that this sweet couple has 3 children, but none around when most needed in this old age. It was a pity!
After lunch, uncle & Shruti’s parents departed for a short afternoon nap. Aunty went on to show the sweet memoirs – the well stacked photo albums of children, right from their infancy, teenage years, marriage of the daughters & photos of their grandchildren – a sparkle, glow in aunty’s eyes as she narrated the related incidences – these albums were truly treasured!! Shreyas seemed to be the most silent child, in his own world. Got to know that he was a Professor & HOD in one of the most prestigious Universities in Australia. Being her only son & far, far away, aunty seemed to love him a lot, perhaps more than the daughters. Next day was a Saturday, as expected there was a call from Shanlee sharp at 10a.m. Both uncle & aunty were eagerly awaiting this call. Both of them spoke to Shanlee at length – we could sense mixed emotions – affection, concern, smiles. Same episode repeated the next day with Sharmilee. Daughters though staying far off seemed to be in regular touch with the parents unlike son.
Shruti & her parents had a good time with uncle & aunty over this long weekend. Now it was time to return. With heavy heart, lots of love, blessings & a promise to keep in touch Shruti’s family bid adieu to the lonely, old couple.
Back home, Shruti got busy with her hectic schedule. Weekends alone were a bit relaxing. On one such weekend, Shruti called up aunty. Uncle answered the call. Aunty was not keeping well, some fever & cold mentioned a rather concerned uncle. It was sad to note that. Shruti was very close to her parents, thus sincerely felt that during such times, at least one of the children should be around to take care. Daughters were probably busy with their families, but Shreyas was a bachelor & should find some time for his old parents. She was curious to know more about Shreyas. She immediately googled, Shreyas was a very handsome gentleman. Most of his higher education was completed in U.S. He had loads of degrees besides a doctorate. He seemed to be very popular amongst the students, had earned lot of respect & accolades in his current profession. Shruti couldn’t help wondering then what was it that had distanced him from his parents. Perhaps uncle was a bit harsher with his son in his younger days.
Next weekend, she again called up to check on aunty’s health. It was good to hear that mischievous voice, aunty was absolutely fine & both of them were planning to visit Sharmilee next month.
Shruti had sort of got involved in aunty’s family. The couple were in close touch with both their daughters – either over a weekly call or personal visits, Shruti felt even Shreyas deserved that affection & warmth & vice versa. But how was the big question.
Shruti made up her mind that she would bring Shreyas closer to his parents. Decided to write to him, not as Shruti but as a lady with lot of admiration for this Professor aspiring to become his friend. Series of mails followed – some personal, some professional but only 1 sided – from Shruti’s end. Shreyas did not respond to even a single mail. That was very disappointing. Shruti was a lady who did not give up so easily on anything. She pursued this periodically for around 2 years – slowly & gradually revealing that she knows his parents well, expressing her sincere urge that Shreyas should look after, care for his parents. But Shreyas seemed to be a very hard nut tough to crack, absolutely no response.
Shruti did not know what to do but had this strong & desperate desire to see this family together. She happened to watch a Marathi movie & a fantastic idea clicked. She rushed to Pune to meet aunty, confided her plan. Aunty was a bit hesitant but Shruti convinced her. Shruti insisted that aunty sends this email to Shreyas, message as:
Shreyas, your baba is no more. Please reach Pune immediately. Aai.
The response was immediate but quite disturbing for aunty:
She stared at the email message on her computer, her mind racing so fast that the words blurred together and no longer made any sense. Just three lines, but enough to make her life--the life she’d worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build--begin to crumble around her.
Baba is no more for the world today.
He was dead for me on 9th Dec, 1976.
Please do not wait for me to complete the last rites.
It was horrifying to read this message from a son to his lonely mother. Shruti blamed self for this humiliating moment in aunty’s life. She had hopes that this news would move Shreyas and instantly bring him back home and then they would disclose the truth. Shruti realized that her decision was absolutely wrong, had infact hurt aunty much more than ever before. Aunty calmed down Shruti, hugged her affectionately. She knew that Shruti cared for them, was desperately trying to bring together her children, especially Shreyas. Aunty then narrated that particular incident:
As presumed, uncle was milder with the girls but very harsh at times with Shreyas. But still Shreyas loved & respected his father. Situation gradually worsened with increasing frequency of Shantanu’s missions. Shantanu was never available when Shreyas desperately needed him, could sense that discrimination between him & sisters. Small incidences can unknowingly have major impacts on a child’s mind. He gradually started staying aloof; aunty was the only one whom he loved dearly. He could tolerate his baba’s mood swings against him but not against his mom. Shreyas was 7years old; Shanlee was down with high fever. I was carrying Sharmilee & my due date was 9th Dec, 1976. On the night of 8th aunty’s mom suddenly passed away due to heart attack. Shreyas could sense that his mom needed dad at this juncture but unfortunately Shantanu received orders & had to leave. Everyone at home wanted Shantanu to be around & none of them knew that Shantanu was RAW agent on a mission for his country except me – it was emergency at home but Shantanu rushed for work despite several attempts by young Shreyas to stop him, neighbours rushed to our solace, they consoled aunty, drove her down to hospital, took care of both ailing Shanlee & weeping Shreyas. Shreyas could never forgive his dad for his careless behaviour that day, his love & respect transformed into negativity & hatred for his dad. Thus from 9th Dec, 1976, Shreyas drifted far, far away from Shantanu. Despite several attempts, both of us couldn’t restore his affection for Shantanu. Thus Shreyas never calls us – what if Shantanu answers the phone call. If he ever visits India, he makes it a point to meet me but outside – in a Hotel or some public place but never comes home. Shruti couldn’t control her tears. This incident in Shreyas’s life was indeed horrifying, it was wrong to blame Shreyas alone.
Shruti decided to stay with aunty & uncle for 1 more day – she didn’t have the heart to leave the couple alone. Next day early morning, doorbell rang. Must be the milkman, aunty handed over the milk vessel to Shruti. Shruti opened the door & could not believe her eyes. It was the same handsome gentleman that she had seen while googling – Shreyas. She was amazed, shocked, worried, hassled & most of all happy to see Shreyas. She rushed to call aunty. With all this commotion, uncle too came out & then there was a pin drop silence.
This time, aunty didn’t want to lose her son. She hugged him, brought him in & started narrating the entire story of her life including how her sweetheart was a RAW agent & that she is proud of him. Shreyas glanced at his father, there was an outburst of emotions, and he couldn’t control himself, rushed to him and hugged him tightly. Uncle too was eagerly awaiting this golden moment in his life. Shruti rushed to click a family photo; after all, her efforts had finally paid off.
Shreyas asked her to wait and wanted to know why this fake email was sent to him. Aunty then went on to explain how Shruti was desperately trying to unify their family. There was an instant guess from Shreyas – so it was you who chased me with those series of emails. With lot of embarrassment Shruti admitted to being this anonymous lady. Shreyas rushed to Shruti, hugged her tightly much to the surprise of his parents. Well, your mails definitely had a lot of impact on me though I did not respond to any, he said. I had intentionally become very detached from my family though somewhere deep down I missed them a lot. Your mails made me realize - how can I do the same mistake that my dad did some years back – of leaving mom alone in her time of distress & this thought made me take the first available flight to India! Hey lady, will you marry me? I would definitely want a life partner who would keep my family unified forever. Shruti had immensely liked Shreyas when she saw him for the first time on net and this gentleman was now proposing her. She whole-heartedly agreed without any second thought & this family lived happily ever after.