Rhea looked up. She said,’ Mom, Where were you when I needed you?’ My heart broke into a million pieces. Tears welled up in my eyes, and before I could realise, they were rolling down my cheeks. Every promise, every resolve that I had ever made to myself just seemed to be crumbling away. My decision to be strong wasn’t able to stick at all.
Though I had always known at the back of my mind that I would have to face such a situation at some point, I hadn’t expected it to unfold like this, but here it was. The situation was staring me in the face, and I had to respond. And I had no idea how to do that.
The girl sitting in front of me was staring at me. Her eyes had so many questions. I didn’t know how I was going to answer them. I didn’t even know if she would believe my answers. But then my practical side, my saviour side, took over, and I decided that I would catch the bull by the horns and be as direct and straight as possible.
I looked at her and said, ‘I was here in New York all the time!’
But why did you leave me?
The question pierced through me like an arrow, and all my doubts came back. I wanted to tell her that I hadn’t left her anywhere. She had been taken away from me.
But would she believe me? I didn’t know.
But I had to try, and most of all, I had to be truthful. So I looked her in the eye and repeated, ‘I did not leave you. You were taken away from me.’
She didn’t respond but just kept looking at me. I could sense that she had many more questions, many more doubts. She looked so vulnerable, so lost. So I put my hand over hers and squeezed it gently, trying to say all that I felt.
We sat in silence, lost in our thoughts.
I was thinking about how I had lost my daughter so many years ago, and she was probably thinking about her mother.
I was also thinking about how people hurt others, sacrificing their happiness just to prove a point.
Uff.. that piercing sound? What is it? My brain is trying to make sense of it. What’s happening? Oh yes!! Then it occurs to me. That’s my alarm. Even in my half-asleep state, I am asking this question. Today is a Sunday. Then why is the alarm ringing? I couldn’t have set it for today. Or had I? Whatever it is, I know I have to put it off before Arvind wakes up. I shouldn’t be disturbing him on a Sunday. But my brain is still foggy from sleep. So if it’s a Sunday, why do I have to wake up?
And then….Today is that Sunday! The Sunday that I had been waiting for but dreading too. It could be a life-changing one. It was the day when I was to see my daughter after sixteen long years; My daughter who had been snatched away from me all those years ago but who had always remained in my heart, in my memories.
I was going to see her today, meet her today, and my mind was buzzing with thoughts and questions.
Would I be able to recognise her? What would she look like? I did have a picture, but still…
How would she react to me? What did she think of me? What had been said to her about me? Did she know the truth? Of course not. She only knew what had been told to her, and it could not be in my favour.
But then she was coming to meet me! That must mean something. I had to focus on the positive, on the bright side. I was sure that she would not be able to consider the lies that must have been fed to her. But then why had she expressed the desire to meet me? I had no answer.
I shake myself and tell myself that I need to stop overthinking and get ready. I will get most of the answers when I meet her. I get up, take a shower, fix myself a cup of coffee and a toast and stand next to the window. Autumn is in the air, the leaves outside are changing colours. The green leaves have taken on various shades of yellow, orange, red, purple and brown. Though the city has been home to me for the last twenty-five years, fall colours never cease to amaze me. The view from my kitchen window is spectacular. Over the previous eight years, ever since we moved into this apartment, I have spent many mornings just gazing out of the window.
Mornings, especially weekend mornings when I have the house to myself before everyone else wakes up. Everyone else includes Arvind, my husband, Ivana and Kiara, my twin daughters, who are eight years old. This is my world, my happy place, but something is missing. I don’t know how I will ever fill the gap.
Weekdays are always a rush-rush affair, with me rushing to drop the girls off to school, getting them to eat, fixing up their breakfast and then getting myself to work. Thankfully Arvind is an independent person and a sweetheart who chips in as much as possible. He is most unlike other Indian husbands, especially Sharad, my ex-husband and the father of the daughter who I am now going to see.
I finish my breakfast, rinse my cup and plate and put on the jacket. There is a nip in the air. In fact, it is more than a nip. It is getting pretty cold, and since I will be meeting her in an open place, I want to be dressed warmly. I head out. I am a little nervous and a little excited too. I am seeing her, my firstborn, after so long!! She had just been a baby then. How much I had missed her, cried for her in those early days when she had been snatched away from me. How angry I had been but had not been able to do anything about it.
Life is so unfair sometimes. You are mistreated, and no matter how hard you try, people treating you that way can get away almost scot-free. As I walk towards the park, my thoughts go back to those days when I had been new to this city, the city of New York. I had just landed from India and got used to the city’s fast-paced life. I didn’t have any friends and was living for a few days with a family friend who wanted me out of their home as soon as possible. I was pretty stressed about it. I needed to look for alternative accommodation but didn’t know how to go about it.
I am so lost in my thoughts that I walk onto the road without realising. A driver honking away brings me back to reality. I look at his angry face, make a gesture of apology and approach the entrance. I pull out my phone to look at the picture and look around to see if I can spot someone matching the face in the image. And then I am taken back to all those years. It is as though I see my younger self.
The exact height, almost the same structure and the hair!! The girl is wearing it the same way I used to when I was that age. Long, silky hair, pulled back with a tortoiseshell comb but only from one side. The other side is loose and keeps coming in her way, and she keeps pushing it back, the way I used to. And then I realise! I am standing and gaping! I don’t need any matching. That’s her, my firstborn. No mistake there!
Oh! I should stop staring! I am making her uncomfortable. I quickly cover the distance between us and walk up to her. She is looking unsure, uncertain, and a little scared. I, too, am all those things but can probably cover it up.
I say,’ Hi’. And then stop.
What should I say now? I am your mother!! What does one say to one’s child who one has not seen for so long, a child who doesn’t know you, and you now know very little about her.
My Hi is met with a gentle, soft Hi from the other side. I lead her towards a nearby bench. We sit down, but there is this awkwardness between us. There is also a lot of tension. But then I take the lead to ask her about how she is and what has brought her to this city. Though a little hesitant to begin with, gradually Rhea, [Yes, that’s her name] opens up. She tells me that she has just got in and has joined NYU for a course in Business.
I am thrilled to know this but wonder how come she is here to meet me. I go back to the call I got on my mobile from an unknown number and had almost not taken it. But then, something had come over me and breaking my habit; I had taken the call. The call had revealed that a girl who claimed to be my daughter, Rhea wanted to meet me. To say that the call had taken me by surprise would be the understatement of the century. I had been standing when I had taken the call. I had to sit on the nearest chair to steady myself. I had about a million questions. Was this some kind of a prank? How could my daughter call me? How did she get my number? How had her father let her do that? And why after so many years? Was something wrong? Had something happened to him or someone else?
For obvious reasons, a call couldn’t answer most of my questions. I just got to know that; yes, it was Rhea, mine and Sharad’s daughter, who was on the other side. She had got my number from Anita, one of my oldest friends who was known to both of us and No, her father didn’t know anything about it. In fact, he had made her promise before leaving for New York that under no circumstances would she contact me. And I once again said to myself, certain things never change; My ex-husband and his obtuse ways. Sharad had actually believed that after knowing that she and her mother lived in the same city, Rhea would not get in touch with me? Like really?? Even if she hated me, she would still be curious to see her mother at least once. All said and done; she was my daughter too!!
We sat, and we talked. Initially, I felt that Rhea was very angry with me. Then the more we spoke, the more I realised that she was also hurt, disappointed, felt let down and somewhere felt neglected too. She seemed to have had a not very happy childhood and though she had landed in this city, seemed to be entirely unaware of the ways of the world. So I gathered that the girl had had a lonely life but fortunately had been able to devote all her time to academics which had been the best thing.
By now, my coffee and toast had sunk to the bottom of my system, and I was hungry. I asked her if she was ok to walk to a nearby diner where we could sit and chat for some more time. She told me she was free for the day. Something in the way she said it made my heart go out to her. Standing there with the wind blowing at her hair, dressed as she was inadequately for the weather, I could feel the sting of tears in my eyes. Why hadn’t Sharad given her appropriate clothes? Did he not know how cold it could get here? But then he was a stingy, penny-pinching person!! She was actually shivering. I offered my stole, which was very warm, and then started walking. The sooner we got into a nice, friendly place, the better it would be. In the meanwhile, I called up Arvind telling him I would be late. Knowing where I was, he told me to chill. He would take care of the twins.
I asked Rhea what she wanted to eat, and without batting an eyelid, my daughter said ‘Burgers.’ So I smiled and decided to take her to the nearest Shake Shack, confident that she would love it. It wasn’t something I fancied, but I knew that one couldn’t go wrong with their burgers. Being a weekend, we had to wait for a bit, but then we got to our table and sat down. So I placed the order and looked at her. She looked a bit lost, but before I could delve a bit deeper, Rhea looked at me and asked, Why did you leave me?’
The question just threw me off. I had expected it at some point, but not at this point and not in such a direct manner. I looked at her. I had so much to say but didn’t know-how. But this question I knew had only one answer, which was ‘I did not leave you. You were taken away from me.’
She looked at me. I could tell she didn’t know whether to believe me or not. But then she said., ‘That’s not true, dad and daadi have told me something different.’
I said, of course, they have. So why wouldn’t they say something different?
By then, our order had arrived. So I told her to focus on the burgers promising that I would resolve all her doubts and answer her questions in time.
The girl was hungry. She polished off the food within minutes, and I could tell that she had loved it.
By now, it was almost 3 in the afternoon, and the twins were calling me. They were done with the father and wanted their mother. Rhea, too figured that I needed to leave. So I asked her if she would like to come home. She refused, saying she wasn’t ready to meet anyone else. We spoke for a bit longer when I asked her about her college, dorm, and roommate. I also asked if she needed something, but as expected, she politely declined my offer, and we decided to meet the following Saturday. So we got up, I hugged her, and we both left to go our separate ways.
After such a long time, my meeting with my daughter affected me in many more ways than I had anticipated. As I sat in the cab to go back home, my mind went back to that day almost twenty-five years ago when I had bumped into Sharad at Anita’s place. I had been new to the city, and Anita had been my first friend in this strange city. I had just joined the Parsons School of Design, and Anita had been one of my classmates and one of the first people I had befriended. I had just arrived from India, whereas Anita was a local. Her dad was a cancer specialist at the Sloan Kettering. She had lived in New York all her life. She lived on campus but, on most weekends, went to her parents’ house. She and I had connected in the first week of college itself, so much so that she invited me over many times when she went home. I had no other friends, so I didn’t mind visiting her. In fact, I loved going over to her place. Her parents were always very welcoming, and several times her mother cooked Indian food for me.
Visiting her exposed me to how an Indian family lived in a place away from India, trying to keep Indian traditions alive while adjusting to the local customs. So I learnt that if they celebrated Diwali and Holi, then Thanksgiving and Christmas were equally big for them. On one of these occasions, I met Sharad, who lived in the city for a few years. He seemed to be a nice guy, easy to talk to and connect with. So we spent the evening chatting up. He showed a great interest in what I was studying and my future plans. At that time, I was too new to the city to have any firm plans, but I knew that I wanted to get a job after passing out and work for a few years. But, since we had connected, we decided to keep in touch.
As I learnt during the course of the following few weeks, Sharad had taken a fancy to me and called me often. I was too busy settling into the new way of studying, living to bother much about him or his calls. He frequently expressed the desire to meet up, but I wasn’t really keen. I had enjoyed talking to him but wasn’t so up to spending an entire evening just with him. But he kept pursuing. And then we bumped into each other at Anita’s place. It had been one of my weekend visits, and as luck would have it, Sharad had also dropped by. Seeing me there, he taunted, saying that I had no time to return his calls but had time to meet Anita.
I was pretty embarrassed though I didn’t like his comment.
After that, he regularly kept in touch, though I still didn’t have a lot of time between my classes, assignments, laundry, and a thousand other things that I had to do. I had an annoying habit in those days, which persists to date though I am a lot better now. I could never say No to people. Even if I didn’t want to be with them or do certain things, I just went along for fear of hurting their feelings, even though I was uncomfortable about doing all that. So I would squirm get angry with myself but could never muster up the courage to say a plain and simple no. Life taught me the hard way that I need to work on that. So today, I think I am a shade better than what I used to be in those days.
So out of some misplaced sense of obligation, I continued meeting Sharad. It wasn’t that he wasn’t good company. He took me to fabulous places, spent money on me and always made sure that I had a good time. I gradually began to see that he and the rest of the world believed that there was more to all this. People thought that we were dating each other when I had no such feelings. For me, he was just a friend.
Anita made me see things the way they were being seen. One evening, we were at her place when she asked me, ‘Are you and Sharad seeing each other?’ Till that point, it hadn’t even occurred to me that our meeting each other could be perceived as this. I was visibly taken aback. But then I looked at her and said, No, we are just friends. He is good company. That’s all.”
She looked at me and, with a smirk on her face, said,
‘He doesn’t think that. He is, in fact, quite serious about you and wants to take this further”.
I was a mixture of fear, disbelief, shock, and anger simultaneously. I looked at her and said, ‘Is he mad? I am just in my freshman year! What is he thinking?’
Somewhere I felt that Anita too had been taken by surprise by Sharad and his intentions. She told me to take it easy and stop accepting all his invitations. I did precisely that, and things cooled down for a couple of weeks. I heaved a sigh of relief but not for too long. One day Sharad, who knew my schedule pretty well, caught me while I was sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park catching up on my reading. I was pretty shocked to see him there. I had been refusing to see him for a while now, and I had been under the impression that he had got the hint but apparently not.
He sat next to me and started talking. Though I was quiet and answered in monosyllables, he continued talking. He told me that he had had a conversation with Anita and that he was sorry for having misjudged the situation. But he said that it didn’t mean that we couldn’t still be friends. So I kind of agreed [ which I realised later had been a mistake!!]
As a result, he managed to stay in touch, if not that often. And then, one day out of the blue, he called to say that his mother was in town and wanted to meet Anita and me. Since Anita was going to be there, I went and met the woman, who seemed to be straight out of a village in Punjab. She was loud and crass, and Anita and I wanted to get away from there as quickly as possible. So it wasn’t as though she was not pleasant to us, but just that I didn’t get a good vibe from her.
Time went by, and I forgot all about the meeting. I was in my sophomore year now and was in India for my winter break when I got the shock of my life. Here I was talking to my father about summer internships and jobs when my mom dropped a bombshell. She announced that a certain Simran Singh was coming for lunch the following day. She told me that Simran Singh was the mother of Sharad Singh, who I knew from New York. Also, no matter what, I had to be there for lunch. This got me all suspicious as my mother had no such friend to the best of my knowledge. When had they met? I had met Sharad for the first time in New York. So how did the two mothers know each other? and then she said that Sharad would also be there and therefore it was all more important for me to be there.
Now my antennae were all up? Why were they coming? And why was my mom so enthusiastic about it?
I was well aware that my education in the US didn’t really mean much to my mother. According to her, it was a passport to getting into a good family in terms of matrimony. Though we strongly disagreed, it made no difference to her. I was pretty sure that this lunch was a step in that direction. And I could smell connivance in it. So I quickly called Anita, who agreed with me. But she also told me that I would not be able to get out of the lunch, so the only option was to be a part of it. So I decided to do that but expressed my concern and disapproval to Sharad. So he tried making it seem like an innocent meeting with no hidden agenda, but I knew better.
Then when I was in my Junior year, my mother came to New York for the summer. That summer, I had not gone home as I had got an internship in New York. While there, she made a plan to meet Sharad and then gradually started sliding in the idea of my getting married to him at some point. I was not only against the idea of getting married to anyone at that point but the idea of getting married to Sharad was totally unacceptable. I told as much to my mother, who just refused to take me seriously. She kept trying to persuade me by praising Sharad and his family, telling me about how well-known they were in Chandigarh, how wealthy they were and how it was a perfect match for me. In all this, my plea that I didn’t like him one bit fell on deaf years. He, too, now started visiting us more often. He and my mother seemed to love each other’s company.
By the time my mother went back, he was as good as a son-in-law as far as she was concerned. He also started to believe that I would too fall in line now that my mom was in his pocket. It was just a matter of time. Then his mother also came to visit, and she too had that same confidence in her. For some reason, they had all decided that I was to get married to him and my feelings were of no consequence. But I wasn’t prepared to toe the line. Instead, I categorically told Anita that I would fight tooth and nail to get out of the alliance.
But as they say, Man proposes, God disposes. Life took such a turn that I was left with no option but to give in to all their wishes. One day while I was attending a class, my professor told me that I had been called to the office. I was pretty surprised because it wasn’t very often that people got called out of class like that. So I went where I was told that my mother needed to speak with me urgently. By now, I was worried sick. So why would my mother do that? And where was she calling from? Was she in town?
With all these questions tormenting me, I tried reaching her but couldn’t get through. You see, in those days, one didn’t have mobiles. One had to book a call to speak. And while was struggling, Anita came rushing with Sharad in tow. Then, holding my hands, she broke the worst possible piece of news. My dad had succumbed to a massive heart attack and was no more. She didn’t have any more details other than the fact that he had been on his morning walk when he had collapsed. I was numb with shock. I had just spoken to him the night before; how could that have happened.
I quickly collected my things. And from then on, it was as though nothing was in my control. I was in like a trance. So I went back to India to be with my family, with Sharad and Anita accompanying me. And I was back in less than two months with being married to Sharad Singh.
Now when I think about it, I can see how it all must have happened. My mother and I were in a state of shock and disbelief. We had not been in a condition to understand what had happened. And if I may say so, Sharad and his mom taking advantage of the situation had convinced my mother to get me married to Sharad. And I, in my zombie-like state, had agreed. I now remember Anita telling me to think l about it, but I, taken in by all the emotional blackmail I was being subjected to, had quietly agreed to get married.
Back in New York, as days went by, the enormity of what I had done started to hit me day by day, minute by minute.
The biggest issue was that Sharad’s mom also moved to New York to live with us, which was the biggest undoing. As it is, I wasn’t in love with my new husband. On top of that, I was expected to play the part of the proverbial Indian daughter-in-law, which I wasn’t prepared to do. So there was trouble from day one.
The only saving grace was completing my course and starting working, which proved to be a boon for me. My mother-in-law wanted me to stay at home, cook, clean, and look after them, but somewhere Sharad knew that I could contribute more if I could go out to work. So though I had my freedom during the day, my evenings, my weekends were spent waiting on the mother-son duo. And then, six months into the marriage, I realised that I was pregnant. It was like a bolt from the blue. I wasn’t prepared for it, but there was no way out. However, there was one saving grace.
My pregnancy brought some respite from the sharp tongue of my mother-in-law and the never-ending household chores. My mother-in-law believed that I needed to be kept happy for the child to be healthy. Which she thought was going to be a boy. But then, as luck would have, that didn’t happen.
I gave birth to a girl who I fell in love with the moment I saw her but who my mother-in-law could not accept. My mother-in-law was quite a stubborn woman. She always wanted her way and somehow had always managed to get it all her life, and whenever she couldn’t, she tried every trick in the book to get it. And when it didn’t happen, as in this case, she would just blame someone else. And though it was ridiculous, she blamed me for giving birth to a daughter. She actually believed that all that she made me do, the prayers, the fasting, the chanting, the food, should have ensured a male child and when it didn’t, it was my fault.
So after my baby girl came into this world, my life became worse than before. It was as though she wanted me to pay for the fact that I had denied her a grandson. Though Sharad tried to make her see sense, gradually, Sharad too found it convenient to blame me.
My life became miserable. I was left with no time between my work, the household chores, and child care. Nobody ever came forward to help. All this started taking a toll on my health. Anita jolted me out of my zombie-like existence and told me to start putting my foot down and ask Shard to help in the house.
Though it made no difference to Sharad, her advice made me get up and note what was happening to me. I was perpetually stressed, had lost a lot of weight and was always irritable. I was like a machine doing everything that was expected of me with no respite. So while the mother-son duo regularly went out, I had no such luxury. My outing meant going to work, grocery shopping, and a few trips to the park as Rhea started growing up. My mother-in-law never felt that she needed to chip in at all. So I had to put Rhea in child care the day I started work. She just refused to look after her.
Though I continued to carry on with my life, Anita’s wake up call made me realise that not only was my husband of no help he had also started coming back late from work and travelling quite a bit. And as was bound to happen, I soon realised that he was having an affair with a girl who worked with him. And horrors of horror when I confronted him, he didn’t even deny it. And his mother put the blame squarely on my shoulders, saying that since I had no time for my husband, his having an affair was natural.
It all seemed so unreal and crazy to me. My house was not a home for me. It was like a madhouse. I was finding it impossible to cope with all my duties and responsibilities. And then, one day, Rhea woke up with a high fever. I had an important presentation, and there was no way I could miss work. But I didn’t want to leave her in daycare. So I requested my mom-in-law to take care of her, but she refused. She had some plans which apparently couldn’t be cancelled. So I looked at Sharad, expecting some understanding and support, but none was forthcoming. His going to work was even more critical. So he walked out of the house, telling me to manage.
I was absolutely livid with the two of them. How was I supposed to manage? I was in tears, knowing very well that if I missed work, it would spell disaster. So what was I to do?
Left with no choice, I called up Anita, who stepped in like an angel. She told me to bring Rhea to her house, where she and her mother would care for her. I quickly collected Rhea’s stuff and took a cab to her place. I was looking like a wreck. She offered me a cup of tea and something to eat. I had forgotten to eat in all that drama, which was normal in my life.
Since someone was taking care of my child, I could spend some time getting ready for work. It was an important presentation, and I needed to look presentable. In the bathroom of her house, I realised that I had aged quite a bit in the one year since Rhea had come into my life. I had lines under my eyes, and there was also a touch of grey in my hair. So imagine I had never had the time to notice this before.
This visit to Anita’s house affected me and my life in several ways. First, it ensured that my presentation went off very well, for starters. And then it opened doors for many more visits to her house. Her mom offered to step in whenever I needed help with Rhea. Not only that, it renewed my friendship in that we started meeting over coffee and drinks, where I got the opportunity to pour my heart out to her; though she had had a fair idea about my life, she wasn’t aware of the details. She was shocked to know about how Sharad had turned out to be. She felt that he was allowing his mother to get away with anything and everything, which wasn’t right at all. He owed something to his wife and daughter but didn’t seem too bothered about that.
Both Anita and her mother convinced me to work as hard as possible and save money. Aunty, in fact, made it clear that at some point, I may have to leave my husband as she didn’t see any point in my living with him. I also realised he had no interest in Rhea or me and started leading a life independent of ours. So no matter how hard I tried to make him see my point or understand my situation, he just refused to do that. It isn’t that he couldn’t understand; he was not interested in me or what happened to me.
One day after an argument that had turned very ugly, he asked me to leave the house if I couldn’t abide by his mother’s wishes. I also told him that I would do exactly that. I would move out, taking Rhea with me. I told him that I would file for divorce and get rid of him and his mother.
I realised later that that had been a colossal mistake. By revealing my plans even though at that time they were just in my head, I had given him the time to prepare himself. But I could have never imagined what he planned to do.
Life went on the way it had been. The only difference was that my mother-in-law had started talking about going to India as she was missing home. Initially, it sounded strange as she had been in the US for many years. In fact, a part of me was pretty happy as I felt that with her going away, Sharad and I might have a chance to work on our relationship.
I remember discussing this with Anita and her parents, who felt that going away would make things better for us. But….
Soon after that, I learnt that Sharad had also decided to go to India to drop his mother. I did not suspect anything at all as I felt that since she was pretty old by then, it made sense for the son to drop his mother. What a fool I was!!! I should have been able to see through their intentions, but I couldn’t.
I have realised that our thoughts and actions are driven by our ethics and values in life, so if you don’t think evil, you can’t even spot it. You can not think like those whose minds are evil. I was in my world imagining a peaceful month when both mother and son would be gone, and I would be able to lead a peaceful life with my daughter.
What did I know about the mal intentions of the mother-son duo? How I wish I had! But it was something that I could have ever imagined!!
As the day of their departure arrived, the house seemed to be in an uproar. My mother-in-law was packing most of her stuff, saying that she didn’t want to return. Then, along with her own stuff, she also picked up some of Rhea’s things, saying she wanted something of her granddaughter. That was laughable as she had never spent much time with the granddaughter; little did I know that she was going to have the last laugh.
I let her take whatever she wanted. Meanwhile, Sharad was also packing away as if there was no tomorrow. And then, to my surprise, the weekend they were to leave, Sharad took us all out for dinner- ‘The last family dinner as he termed it!
I was surprised, but then I felt he was doing it since his mother would not return.
The Monday after the weekend was as typical as can be. I left for work, taking Rhea with me to drop her off at the daycare.
The day went off as usual, and as luck would have it, I got a free a little earlier than expected. Happily, I went to collect Rhea, thinking that I would take her to the park and then for ice cream. We could spend some time together before going home.
Imagine my shock when I went to collect her! I was told that my husband had already picked her up. In fact, the lady there said to me that he had come to pick her up very soon after I had dropped her. On asking, he had told her that he was doing that as there had been an emergency in the family. Now I was baffled. What emergency!?
I called up home, but no one answered. I called Sharad on his cell, but it wasn’t reachable. So I called up his office but was told that he had not reported at work. And when I spoke to his boss, I learned that he had put in his papers. He had done that six months ago and served the notice period.
Now the alarm bells started ringing. So I called up Anita and told her to rush to my house, and I also took a cab to get there as quickly as possible. I entered, and there was this eerie silence in the house. Most of the house was empty. With my heart in my mouth, I entered Rhea’s room and saw that her closets were open and there was nothing of hers anywhere in the room. By now, I was panicking. At that moment, Anita entered the house. I saw her and started blabbering.
I can’t find Rhea.
Sharad has taken her somewhere.
His phone is not reachable.
I don’t know what to do.
Anita quickly called her dad, who realised the enormity of the situation and rushed to Sharad’s office. He could somehow smell a rat. He met a few of Sharad’s colleagues, and though most of them had no clue, one of them had an idea. He was an Indian by the name of Arun. Seeing his panic, he told him that Sharad had probably left the US for good. He was booked on a flight to go in a couple of hours. But he had no ideas about Rhea.
Uncle expecting the worst rushed to pick us up, and we all rushed to the airport. I somehow had a feeling that he had taken Rhea with him. Meanwhile, Anita called the cops, and I filed a kidnapping complaint against the mother and son. It was a bad traffic day, and it took us almost two hours to get to the airport.
Finally, we got there, and then horror struck! We realised that there had been a flight to Delhi which had just taken off! So on request, we got to have a look at the passenger list. And on that list, I read three names- two were adults and one an infant. And I knew then who that infant was.
I was filled with rage. I couldn’t believe that Shrad had done this to me. He had told me he was going to drop his mother. It had all been a lie. He had left the country, taking our daughter with her. But could he do that? Wasn’t there any law that could stop him from doing that??
I was hysterical. I couldn’t stop crying. It was a part of me that had been snatched away from me!! How would I be able to live without Rhea, and more importantly, how would she live without me? Sharad and his mother had never cared for her; why would they do it now?
My girl would be feeling so lost! How could they have done this? Eventually, Anita’s dad gave me a sedative to help me sleep.
The next few days were about talking to lawyers, to the cops, to our friends, anyone and everyone I thought could help.
But no one could. As my lawyers explained, the US authorities could take no action against Sharad as he was no longer in the country. He could be charged with kidnapping, but then that wouldn’t hold, as he was the father.
I called my mother to tell her to let me know if they went to their house. My mother, who had thought the world of the two of them, was shocked by the reality. I was pretty rude to her as I blamed her squarely for putting me in this situation. I said as much to her.
I told her to be on the alert and let me know if they would come to Chandigarh. But of course, they were way more intelligent than I was.
They did not go back. I had no idea where they had gone; other than knowing that they had taken the flight to Delhi, I had no idea about their whereabouts.
It was such a helpless state to be in. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. It now seems to be a scene from a movie, but I had no clue about my daughter’s whereabouts for the next three months. I ran from pillar to post, got in touch with the Indian embassy, spoke to friends and family in India to look for them but to no avail.
Anita and her family were my pillars during those horrible months. I couldn’t eat, sleep or function at all. And then, to add to my misery, I got to know that the house in which we lived and was ours had been sold away. So my signatures had been forged by Sharad to do that.
And so, I found myself with no family and no roof over my head. My job had also gone as I had not been able to work. I was utterly broken. My world had come apart in the worst possible way. I had no option but to move in with Anita.
Though it seemed unbelievable, unreal gradually, I came to realise that I could not do anything. Nobody could help me. My daughter had been snatched away, and I could not do anything about it. But, in hindsight, I could see that there had been red flags that I had refused to see; the extra love and affection towards me and Rhea, the family dinner, my mother-in-law’s taking away Rhea’s things, it had all been planned. They had lied to me all along. The plan had always been for the mother and son to leave the country for good, taking Rhea with them.
I had not been able to see through their tactics, But it was all spilt milk now.
And then, six months later, we got a clue. A friend of mine, Neela, spotted Sharad in a bar in Delhi. As she had been surprised to see him, on asking around, she figured that he was often seen there with one woman or the other. But she had no idea where he lived or what he did.
I wanted to rush to Delhi, but then better sense prevailed. But, till the time, I didn’t know where he lived what would I achieve. So I implored her to find out his address.
As luck would have it, it wasn’t long before she was able to find out. She found that he had a few friends with him who seemed to live off him on most days. That wasn’t surprising since he had a lot of money and loved to impress people with it.
Neela started visiting the bar more often to get more information about him. It wasn’t long before she figured that he lived in Greater Kailash. She overheard him telling his friend. I needed to know if Rhea, too, lived with him.
It took her a while to get that piece of information. Since she knew the area well and had friends there, she started checking with them if they knew of a family that had recently relocated from the US. And it was a matter of time before she got to know. So she found out his address and confirmed that Rhea was with him.
I packed my bags. I didn’t know what I would do or could do, but I wanted to give it a shot.
Anita accompanied me. My mother also joined us. We took a room in a guest house very close to where Sharad lived. We didn’t want him to discover us, so we maintained a low profile, only stepping out when necessary. I was desperate to see Rhea but didn’t want to act rashly and warn Sharad.
Meanwhile, a cousin of mine also came to help us. He had a few contacts in the police, and we thought of confronting Sharad by barging into the house one day with the cops. Though we had no case against him being the mother, I had a right to see my daughter. We even hired a lawyer.
But then the powers that be were not on my side. Everything went off as per plan. We reached the house met Sharad, but neither his mother nor Rhea was to be seen everywhere. When our lawyer asked about them, he behaved as if he didn’t know what they talked about. On further questioning, he said that his mother had died two months ago, and he had no family left now.
I looked at him and asked, ‘Where is Rhea?’
To my shock, he pointed an accusing finger at me said, ‘You should know where she is. I left her with you!’
Before I could even wrap my head around this absurd statement, he started screaming and shouting. He ran out of the house and started crying, saying that I had first kidnapped his daughter and now was accusing him of something he could have never done.
All this commotion had an apparent effect. People came out of their houses to see what was happening. It seemed like it was a marital dispute, and his screaming and my standing there in a befuddled state made people believe him. But that wasn’t the point. As a result of the drama, I could not find out where my daughter was. I couldn’t even catch a glimpse of her.
By now, the cops also thought it was just a drama left, and we too had no choice but to leave. So I was beside myself with anger, fear and disgust. I couldn’t get over the audacity of the man! After having taken away Rhea from right under my nose, he had the cheek to accuse me of the very same thing!
We all spent a sleepless night mulling over our next course of action. Our lawyer couldn’t find a way out. The reason was that Sharad and I were still married, he was Rhea’s father, and Rhea was not to be found anywhere. What action could we possibly take? So we decided to watch the house to see if we could detect some movement, some trace of rhea but to no avail.
And then one day, when my mother, who had stepped out to buy something from the local market, got the shock of her life. She was accosted by a man who threatened her with dire consequences if we did not leave and forget about Rhea. My mother got terrified. And fearing for our lives, she suggested that we drop everything and go back to our respective homes. I was not prepared to do that.
But then she looked at me and said, ”Certain things are best left alone. You have to have faith in the powers that be. If Rhea is meant to be with you, she will find a way to reach you.’
Anita, too, felt the same way. Ultimately I too realised that Sharad was not a guy to be messed with. He was an evil person who could go to any length to have his way. I also felt that I could not put my mother’s or Anita’s life in danger.
And so, with a heavy heart, I went back to New York and filed for a divorce. Everyone felt that I needed to break up with the man if I wanted to lead a normal life.
The separation from my daughter gnawed at me; it was a wound that continued to fester though time went by as it was meant to be.
I learnt to live with the unfairness, the unjustness of the situation. I got back to work. Time went by, I met Arvind and fell in love with him. Though it took me a while to get over the experience with Sharad, as they say, time is a great healer. Arvind, who was the exact opposite of my ex-husband, managed to make me get over Sharad and find love. We got married, and soon I gave birth to the twins.
We humans, I feel, are incredibly resilient and flexible too. Even though sometimes it seems impossible to accept a situation, eventually, we learn to take it in our stride and live with it. The event lives on in some part of our mind, but other things take over, and that happening gets relegated to the background.
This is what happened to me. My life as a wife and mother took over, and I learnt to live without Rhea. My husband and the twins became my world, and it was a joyful world.
I got a call from Anita, who told me about Rhea being in the city and wanting to meet me. After that meeting, everything got rekindled and with that came back my determination to get my daughter back. But first, I needed to understand what I was up against. So I decided to start meeting Rhea more often. I didn’t want to push, but I wanted my daughter back.
So I called her one day, and we decided to meet. I wanted her to open up with me. It wasn’t as tricky as I had anticipated. Rhea was equally keen to meet me. In fact, we started meeting once a week over coffee or a meal, and I could sense that she wanted to share a lot with me. So she started telling me about her life, from her college life to her childhood. I learned that she was highly hard-pressed for money, and though initially reluctant to accept anything from me, I could help her out with time.
I learned that Sharad had become an alcoholic and didn’t care too much about her. Apart from paying her fees, he gave her very little money. She had taken to small-time jobs around the campus to see her through. He didn’t even want her to visit him. His mother had passed away many years ago.
This riled me no end. I couldn’t understand why he had to take her with him if he couldn’t see through his responsibilities towards her. But then I figured that there was nothing that I could do about it. It would be best just to let go. Fate had made my daughter come back to me, and I was going to make the most of it.
Gradually I convinced her to visit my home and meet Arvind and the twins. Though hesitant at first, she got used to the idea with time. Arvind liked her a lot and the twins… well, for them, she was an elder sister with whom they could share anything and everything.
Whatever it was, Rhea had turned out to be a loving and caring individual. She, too, loved coming over and gradually started spending the weekends with us. I would cook her favourite dishes, sometimes take her out, and with time, we all started doing it as family. Kudos to Arvind, who welcomed her into the fold and, in a way, stepped into the shoes of her father.
Slowly she opened up enough to tell me about what Sharad and his mother had told her about me. Apparently, I had fallen in love with a colleague of mine and then eloped with him, leaving everything behind. And the two of them had been so ashamed of my action that they had to leave the country and go back to India. The story was so hilarious but right up Shard’s alley. He probably couldn’t think of anything better!!
But my daughter had my genes too, and gradually between Anita and I, we told her about everything that had happened. The girl was horrified and couldn’t believe they could have done all that. But then she probably realised that if the Sharad could break off ties with her, his own flesh and blood, he could very well have done that with me.
Sometimes in life, you don’t have to try too hard. I realised this when I figured that Rhea did not doubt me at all.
So justice did prevail though it took its own sweet time. My daughter came back and decided to break off all contact with her father.
It made me realise that things happen when they are meant to happen in life, not before, not after.
Shalu MahajanAugust 14, 2022
A wonderful read!! Actually nobody tells their children about such evil people. Though there are red flags but unfortunately we tend to ignore as we are unable to think from a perspective of a toxic person 😞
Sangeeta RelanSeptember 4, 2022
Glad you liked this!