Neelima Sarin was getting ready to get to work. As usual she was running late and dreading getting ticked off by her boss. But what was she to do? Mornings were such a rush, rush affair. With three children to be sent to school, their meals to be fixed, then to get ready herself, look for some form of transport to get to work, it wasn’t easy. No matter how hard she tried to be on time, something or the other always made her get late. Evenings were again similar in terms of getting back home, figuring out the meals and getting into bed in an exhausted state. The only respite came on weekends when she could wake up a little late and not have to rush to get anywhere. But then before she knew it was time to start a new week and get back into the grind. This was now her life. Once upon a time, life wasn’t such a challenge, it was easy, so simple, but now each day was a struggle.
From being a happy twenty-five year old, the eldest daughter of Atul and Meena Sarin, a wealthy family living in a posh area of the city, leading a fancy lifestyle to this life where she not only had to fend for herself but had to take care of her brother and sisters as well. God! What a change!!
Five years ago Neelima was like any other twenty five year old, who had had a comfortable, cushy childhood, had been to the best of the schools and college, was pretty looking and had a good set of friends. Her father was a topnotch industrialist, mother was a housewife, and she had three younger siblings, her brother Rohit, and the twins Dia and Ria. Rohit was fifteen, and the twins were twelve years old. Since there had been a considerable age difference between them, she had always treated them like little children with whom she had nothing much to share. She had completed her graduation and was contemplating joining her father in his business. It seemed like a good idea, and even her parents wanted her to do that, but she had not yet decided. In any case, there was no pressing need for her to start working, and so she was also taking her time before plunging into the workspace. Though the father was the only earning member money had never been an issue. He and his brother had started a business almost thirty years ago, which had done very well and now the two of them were rolling in money.
So they spent well, lived well and life was good till that fateful day in March. The day had begun on a regular note. She had woken up leisurely at nine in the morning. Her siblings were at school, and her parents were travelling. They had gone to Bangalore for three days to attend the wedding of a close friend’s son. She knew that they were supposed to have taken the eight AM flight. She was on her way down to the dining room when Manu Bhai, the trusted family servant who had been with them for as long as she could remember rushed into the room to tell her that her father’s EA Aakash was desperately trying to reach her on the landline. She checked her mobile to see why he hadn’t called her there to realize that the phone had run out of battery. It had probably not got charged last night. She rushed down to call him back. And when she did, her world just crashed!
The EA, whose name was Aakash, told her that the plane in which her parents were flying to Bangalore had crashed immediately on takeoff. The pilot, for some reason, had lost control of the aircraft soon after it had taken off leading to its crash just off the coast of the city. And there were no chances of any survivors. Not quite believing Aakash, Neelima rushed to switch on the TV to realize that all the news channels were talking about the crash. Still not believing that her parents could have been on that ill-fated flight she called Aakash again to confirm if they had boarded the plane. To her horror, he told her that he had seen them off to the airport. He said to her that he usually didn’t do it but this time since her father had something critical to discuss with him he had accompanied her parents to the airport and yes they had boarded the plane because they had been on a call just before her father had switched off the phone.
And while she was talking to him, she saw her uncle, her father’s younger brother, Salil and aunt, Anju rushing into the house. Seeing their state no longer was there a doubt in her mind. She knew that it was a fact. In a matter of a few hours, she and her siblings had become orphans, left all alone to fend for themselves. She was in a state of complete panic; she couldn’t breathe; it seemed as if something had sucked out the very life out of her. What was she to do? And then she remembered!! How was she going to tell Rohit, Ria and Dia about it? They were in school oblivious to what had happened to them. Who was going to break the news to them? How would they take it? Who would handle that? And at that moment Neelima Sarin grew up from a twenty-five year old rich, pampered daughter to a twenty-five-year-old elder sister who had no clue about her life ahead, about what lay ahead for any of them but was clued on about the fact that her siblings were now her responsibility. She had to take care of them, and she was going to start the process at that very moment by going to their school and getting them home. Neelima decided that she and nobody else would be the one to break this terrible news to them. Having decided that she quickly went up to her room, changed and told her aunt to hold the fort till the time she had her brother and sisters with her.
By now, all their relatives, friends and well-wishers had got the devastating piece of news and had started pouring into their house. But ignoring all of them, with tears running down her cheeks, she got into the car and told the driver to take her to the school where her siblings studied. She didn’t know how she was going to break the news to them; just knew that she had to. While she was still pondering over this, the driver informed her that they had reached. She got off and rushed to the Principal’s office who already knew about the tragedy. He was preparing to get the children to his office to break the news to them. One by one, the three children walked in, and the surprise on seeing their sister turned into shock and horror when they figured the reason for her being there.
It was a heartwrenching scene. All four of them were holding each other and crying their hearts out. The Principal, teachers who had escorted the children from the classes, the peon in the office all had tears in their eyes. It all seemed so unfair and unjust. How could fate have been so cruel!! What had the children done to deserve this?? What would become of them?? Nobody had an answer to any of the questions. Finally, when the tears took some respite, Neelima gathered her family,(or whatever was left of it), got into the car to go back home and face what was in store for them. They reached home, which was now swarming with people. Their aunt told them to go and sit in the living room where people could come and offer their condolences to them. She informed Neelima that her uncle had gone to the airport to find out if it would be possible to retrieve the remains of their parents. On hearing, this Dia screamed as though she were an animal howling in pain. Neelima pulled her towards her and tried to calm her down, but she wouldn’t listen. It seemed as though nothing was making sense to her. She was getting hysterical, and Neelima didn’t know what to do. At that point, their family doctor stepped in and told her that it would be advisable to administer a tranquillizer to Dia so that she could relax a bit.
The next ten days were a nightmare for the Sarin children. From dealing with the horror of having lost both their parents, to getting just their partial remains, to going through the last rites, it was simply terrible. Many a time during those days Neelima would think that it was all a terrible nightmare. She would get up and realize that nothing of that kind had happened and they were one big happy family once again. Once again, she was having an argument with her mother over the length of her dress. Once again, she was trying to convince her father to let her stay the night out. But sadly, this wasn’t just a nightmare. It was their reality. Their parents were no more, and they had to learn how to live without them.
Gradually, the ceremonies got over, and people started leaving, and the house started getting empty. One by one, people left to get on with their lives, leaving the children to get on with theirs. Now the Sarin children had no grandparents on both sides. The closest relatives were their father’s younger brother and mother’s younger sister, Abha and a brother. After everyone had left, their aunt Abha stayed back to help them get some semblance of order into their lives. She advised Neelima to take charge of the situation and figure out how they were going to survive. She told her to have a conversation with her dad’s brother about it.
Since the business had been a joint one, she told her to claim their share and then decide what she wanted to do. In the meanwhile, she pushed the younger children to get back to school and try and normalize their lives which was easier said than done. But anyways she forced them and with Neelima also doing the same the children agreed. The thing was that the children didn’t want to leave their house and go anywhere. Dia, in particular, felt that if they were to do that they would again lose one of them. But with her aunt’s efforts, her counselling, they were all able to persuade her to get on with her life and start going to school. Abha had been much younger to her sister and though married at one point was now divorced and had no children. She worked as an investment banker in the US and had rushed to be with her nieces and nephew on hearing about the tragedy. She had taken an extended leave of absence from her work because she wanted to be there for the children who she knew would find it impossible to deal with the blow that fate had meted out to them. She wanted Neelima to sort out all the formalities and figure out the road ahead.
So therefore on Abha’s insistence one day Neelima decided to go to her dad’s office and speak to her uncle about what needed to be done about their future. She walked into her father’s cabin and dissolved into tears when she saw the chair on which he used to sit. His room looked pretty much the same. His desk had pictures of all of them, pictures in which they were all smiling, laughing, and so, so happy. Now it was a thing of the past. There was no daddy; there was no mummy to wipe off their tears. They had only each other, and she being the eldest had to take charge. She had to be a mother and a father to Rohit, Ria and Dia. With this resolve in mind, she walked out of her dad’s office to go and see her uncle, which is when, for the first time since she had lost her parents, she sensed trouble.
To begin with, her uncle did not see her immediately, which is what she felt he should have done. Rather than coming out of his cabin to greet her and console her as a well-meaning uncle would have done, he made her wait for an hour on the pretext that he was in a meeting. His secretary probably on orders from the boss was curt and quite unsympathetic. Eventually, after an hour, her uncle called her in and asked her why she had left home to come to the office. He told her that there was no need for her to do that. From then onwards, she had to trust him as he would take care of all their needs. He told her that he was in possession of all her dad’s papers, and she had no reason to worry about anything. Though not in agreement, Neelima had no choice but to leave and go. When she related the incident to her aunt, Abha knew that there was going to be trouble for her. She told her to open up all her mother’s cupboards and get hold of her valuables and not part with them whatever the circumstances. Luckily for them, Neelima’s mother had taken out a lot of jewellery from the bank locker for the wedding and at the last minute had decided not to take a significant part of it with her. So Abha had Neelima got hold of it, and for some reason Abha made Neelima take all that out of the house and put it in a locker which she shared with her mother. The aunt, niece duo collected all her dad’s papers lying in his study and put those also in the locker.
By then, the parents had been gone for a month, and Neelima needed money for the house. So, therefore, Abha suggested that Neelima should approach her uncle once again and ask for the money.
Neelima did that but was in for a shock when her uncle sent her thirty thousand rupees saying that he had deducted the rest to make up for what he had incurred during all the ceremonies. Then the next day she was told by their staff that someone from the office had come and taken away three of their cars. On being asked, her uncle told her categorically that there was no need for them to have so many. They could make do with one. Neelima discussed this with Abha, who advised to not react to this as they didn’t really need so many cars. She told her that her focus should be on other far more critical issues. So, therefore, she should give in to her uncle’s wishes. All the same, she advised her to be wary of her uncle whose intentions didn’t seem honourable. Next month came, and again he sent a paltry amount towards their monthly expenses and when this continued the next month also Neelima decided to approach her uncle once again. She went to his house where she met her aunt and cousins who she hadn’t met after the passing away of her parents. They were quite cold, and her aunt made her sit in the living room by herself while she waited for her uncle. As before he didn’t turn up for over an hour, and when he did, he told her to hurry up with whatever she wanted to say as he was busy. She began by telling him that they needed more money for the house and otherwise too to which he said that since none of them were contributing towards the work, he could only give what he could afford.
At this point, her aunt walked in. She had probably been listening to the conversation. She added her two bits and told her that she and her siblings would have to adjust to the change in their lives by cutting down on their expenses. Neelima was quite shocked by their behaviour. She had always thought that her uncle treated her father with a lot of respect and regard. So if that was the case, how could he treat his children like this. But of course, he thought that he could.
She told him that she could start working in the office and contributing, which in any case had been the plan before the tragedy had struck. Her uncle dismissed her suggestion by saying that he would have to think about it and then walked off. Her aunt also left the room and so with nothing more to say or do Neelima also left. Abha was livid when she heard what had transpired. She told her that they would need to speak to her father’s lawyers to understand what needed to be done. It was an alarming situation, but both the women decided not to tell the children about it as they were already finding it difficult to come to terms with the situation.
Thus in the next few days, Abha and Neelima focused on salvaging their interests and rights in the first half of the day while in the latter half, they focused on the children. They tried to be there for them all the time, sharing in their grief, consoling them and pepping them up. Dia was the one who was the cause of concern. For some reason, the other two had slowly come to a stoic acceptance of the situation. They had come to realize that there was no choice but to resign themselves to their fate. Rohit, in particular, realized how hard it was for Neelima to cope up with everything. Though not aware of all that was happening with the uncle, he had some idea as he had seen his sister look worried and anxious on many an occasion when she thought that no one was around. Also a couple of times he had overheard his aunt and sister talk about about how difficult things were turning out to be. So he had an idea that all was not well with their uncle. He discussed it with the other two, and they all decided that would not ask Neelima for anything and make do with what they had. So there were going to be no outings, no new clothes or shoes, no unnecessary spending. So all of a sudden Ria who loved going shopping didn’t want to do it any longer, her friends didn’t visit her that often. Rohit, a tech freak, didn’t want any new gadgets and was happy with what he had.
Time moved on, and one day Neelima realized that it had already been six months since that fateful day. The sadness still hung like a pall of gloom on the house. The children went to school, came back and stayed in their rooms. There was no fun, no laughter, no fighting, no disagreements. There was always a death-like silence in the house. Nobody came to check on them either. Suddenly from a household that was always buzzing with life, laughter, people visiting, there was complete silence. Both Abha and Neelima realized that something needed to be done. It was high time a semblance of normalcy came into their lives.
So one Sunday, when everyone was home, Abha instructed the cook to cook everyone’s favourite dishes for breakfast. After they had all eaten, she did not let them go back to their rooms. The meal brought back many painful memories. Dia remembered how their mother would force her to eat and not be so obsessed about staying thin. Ria burst into tears the moment she saw her waffles and maple syrup, her Sunday breakfast. Rohit was trying to put up a brave front but even he had tears in his eyes when he saw his favourite breakfast of two eggs, sunny side up with sausages and bacon and his cold coffee with just the right amount of sugar, something that his mother always ensured. It was just so, so painful.
Neelima wanted to console her siblings, but Abha signalled to her to step back and let them deal with their grief on their own. After the meal, she sat all of them down and told them that she needed to talk to them. She began by saying that though she knew how grief-stricken and devastated they were, they now needed to get a hold on themselves and try and move on. At this point, Dia burst into tears and said that she couldn’t accept the situation. She couldn’t understand how God could have been so unfair and cruel to them!! Why had he taken away their parents when everyone else still had them?? Why was everyone so happy when they couldn’t be? It took a long time for Abha and Neelima along with Rohit and Ria to calm her down, to pacify her. While they had no answers to her questions, they advised her to learn to accept it. But she couldn’t do that. Neelima didn’t know how to handle her when Rohit stepped in. He held Dia by her shoulders and shook her.
He looked at her and said, ‘Dia, calm down, you are not three years old. You are twelve!! You have to understand that tears are not going to bring mummy and daddy back. They have gone away, and you have to accept it!”
Hearing this Dia retorted by saying’ I am trying, but it is not happening. I am so angry, so hurt, so heartbroken. What can I do?”
At this Rohit said’ ‘So are all of us. You are no different. You have to be strong for yourself, for us and for Neelima di who is trying so hard to take care of us. She is fighting with uncle; she is getting the money; she is running the house, organizing everything for us. And she is also dealing with her grief.”
This statement made Dia stop for a minute and think. She looked at her twin, who also nodded her head, and she realized how selfish she had been. She had been so consumed by her own sorrow that she had forgotten about everyone else. At that moment, the little girl just stopped being little.
She walked up to Neelima and said, ‘No more tears Neelu di. Tell me how can I be of help to you?”
At this point, the other two also came forward and told Neelima that they would be with her in everything and would help her in whatever way she wanted them to. Abha was touched by the love which the children had for each other. She had seen how Neelima had from a frivolous young girl changed and got into a parent mode. She had somewhere assumed responsibility of her siblings and was trying to make their life as easy as possible. And now she had the support of the others too. It warmed her heart to see this, but she realized that they needed to snap out of this and figure out the way forward with the uncle.
While they were with each other, Manu Bhai walked in to inform that Aakash had come and he wanted to see Abha and Neelima. Aakash walked in and just burst into tears. Abha offered some water to him and let him settle. He composed himself and then told Neelima to take things in her control because their uncle was planning to take away all that was theirs. He had taken possession of all their father’s papers and was in consultation with lawyers to find a way to take away all the properties, the shares, the cash, and leave nothing for them.
Abha looked at him and asked him only one question, ‘Why have you come now after six months? Couldn’t you have come earlier?”
Aakash looked at them with an ashamed look on his face and admitted that Salil had influenced him by telling him that he would take care of all his interests if he kept quiet about whatever was happening and cooperated with him. Aakash admitted that greed had taken over and he had chosen to help Salil by handing over all their father’s papers to him. He had woken up when one fine day, he realized that Salil was planning to throw all of them out of their house and take away most of their father’s wealth. His wife was the one who had drilled some sense into him and told him to inform the family about Salil’s intentions.
This revelation was shocking though not entirely surprising. Salil had made his pretty clear in the last few months, but what was shocking was the extent to which he intended to go. The conversation sent Neelima into a panic mode, but Abha told her to calm down and speak to the lawyer who in any case was trying to sort things out. But now they realized they had no time to lose. The moment Aakash left Neelima called up her dad’s lawyer and apprised him about all that she had learnt. He came rushing, and the three of them had a long chat. He assured them that while Salil may be able to take away the business and some assets, their parents’ possessions could not be touched. But unfortunately, it would be difficult to distinguish between the two. That is when Abha told Neelima to bring the papers which she had found in her dad’s study and show them to him.
The lawyer inspected them and realized that a number of them were only related to work and so of not much use to them. There were a few others which showed that the house in which they lived was in the joint names of the parents and one of the cars was in their mother’s name. That was it.
Abha wanted to know what could be done to safeguard their interests. The lawyer informed her that as of now, they were at the complete mercy of Salil, and it was advisable for them to be in his good books and get whatever they could out of him. He told them categorically that by handing over the personal papers and keys of his boss to Salil, Aakash had done an unimaginable amount of damage and it would be difficult to reverse the situation. He suggested that both women should start working somewhere to augment their income instead of worrying about what Salil might do.
At this point, Neelima suggested to Abha to go back to the US and get on with her life. She genuinely felt that it would be grossly unfair to keep her tied to their lives, but Abha flatly refused. While she admitted that she needed to get back to work, she also felt that she didn’t have to go back to do that. She could either ask her boss to fit her in somewhere in Mumbai so that she could be with the children or she could look for a new job in Mumbai. Therefore there was no question of her leaving them all alone. Neelima had no words to express her feelings, her gratitude to her aunt for giving up her life for them. She just looked at her, unable to say anything. And Abha’s heart went out to this girl who was like a daughter to her and who seemed so lost and forlorn. But beneath that lost look, she could sense a firm resolve in her to protect her siblings and herself from the greed of her uncle.
Now Neelima started looking for a job and though not a highly paid one she managed to get one in an export house. It was getting increasingly difficult to manage because Salil had almost stopped giving them any money. They had a large house and staff to maintain. Since there wasn’t a lot of money, the women decided to cut down on the unnecessary expenses. So suddenly from a house that was teeming with servants they were left to just three, Manu Bhai, a maid and a driver. All the others were given time to look for jobs and then ultimately had to go.
All this meant that the children had to start helping in the house as well. They had to get into the habit of fending for themselves and not depend on others to help them. But the children managed and like how. And then one day, Rohit informed his sister that they did not need so many tutors to help them with their studies. They would manage on their own. And they did that and what is more, their end of the year grades at school were better than before. It was as though all of them were resolved to succeed in their struggle.
But troubles never end. One day they received a notice from the court stating that the house they lived in had been attached to a court case which their dad had been fighting on behalf of the company. Given that, the house had to be sold to pay all the dues. What was shocking was that it was only their house that was to be attached, it was only their lifestyle that had to be compromised while their uncle and his family could continue to live their fancy lifestyle. Neelima again approached her lawyer who after getting to the bottom of the case, informed her that there was no way that the house could be saved. Abha suggested that she meet up with her uncle who this time flatly refused to see her. Since she had gone to his house, she met her aunt who told her with a straight face that she and her siblings needed to adjust with times. She said to her that they were also in a lot of financial trouble and so could not do much to help them. It was all a lot of lies as their house, and their lifestyle did not convey any such thing. Left with no choice, she broke the news to the rest of her family who accepted it maybe as a part of the package that fate was throwing at them. None of them wanted to leave the house, the house which had been their home for so long. None of them had ever lived anywhere else, but there was no option now. They had a month to look for a new place and to decide what they wanted to do with all their belongings. It was clear that their new home could not be as big and palatial as the current one and they would not be able to fit in everything over there.
So they sat down and made a list of things that they could carry with them and the rest they disposed of off though it wasn’t easy at all. And twenty days later the four children of Atul and Meena Sarin walked out of their home with a heavy heart to make a new home in a different part of the city. From a twenty room posh house, they had to move to a modest two-bedroom apartment because now the added expenditure of rent also had to be borne by them. Though Abha was also contributing towards the expenses, it wasn’t easy to run the house, educate the three children, take care of their expenses and also to save a little. Though Neelima had managed to retrieve some part of her mother’s jewellery, she wanted to keep it for the future.
So now life was waking up early in the morning, sending the children to school, getting ready and going to work. Going to work meant taking public transport which Neelima had never done in her life and after a days work there still a lot of work to be done at home. Though Manu Bhai was there, he was also getting on in years, and it didn’t seem fair to burden him with work when it was evident that he was too old and feeble to do it. Life wasn’t easy, but Neelima had decided that no matter what she had to go on and shoulder the responsibility that fate had thrust upon her. She wasn’t going to shy away, was going to make the life of her siblings as comfortable a life as possible and then try and secure their future as well. The road ahead was difficult and full of hurdles, but there was no way that she was going to give up.
Life moved on. Three years down the line and Rohit was in college, and the twins were on the verge of finishing their school. The day Rohit got admission in a college, Neelima had this huge sense of achievement. She knew that if her parents had been alive, Rohit would have gone abroad to study, but in the changed circumstances of their life, he had to make do with studying in India. But the fact that he had performed exceedingly well in his school-leaving exams made her so terribly proud of him. The girls were also conscious of their responsibility and were working hard to do well in school.
Neelima was sharing this with Abha one Sunday morning when Abha looked at her and asked her’ ‘Neelima, what about your life? Have you thought about your future? Don’t you want to get married and have a family, a home of your own?’
Neelima looked at her and said,’ This is my family, and this is my home. How can I go anywhere else? ‘
Having said that she walked out of the room. Abha wanted to say many things but chose to keep quiet and wait for the right time, a time when Neelima would be open to what she had to say.
What did Abha have to say? Was she able to prevent Neelima from sacrificing her life for her siblings? Want to know?? Wait for Part 2.