“Where are you going Apuchi?” asked Anup.
Gopalji looked at his seven-year-old grandson. “I am going to Bua daadi’s house beta.”
“But why are you packing so many bags? When you go to her house you take only one bag?”
Gopalji did not reply. He continued packing his things.
“Are you going for a long time?”
Just then Anup’s father Govind entered the room. He looked very tense.
“Go outside and play Anup, don’t trouble Babuji?” he said glaring at him.
Anup walked out. He was scared of his father when he was in a serious mood.
Half an hour later Gopalji’s luggage was loaded in Govind’s Maruti. Gopalji picked up Anup and gave him a tight hug. He placed some money in his hand and got into the car.
“Apuchi when will you come back?” Anup shouted just as Govind started the car and drove away. Anup’s question remained unanswered.
He turned to his mother Neeraja. “Ma where has Apuchi gone? Why he has not taken him with me? When will he come back?”
Neeraja took his hand in hers and led him inside. “He has gone to his sister’s house. How could he take you with him? Your exams are just around the corner. And as far as his coming back is concerned, I can’t say.”
Anup loved his Apuchi very much. Ever since he could remember Apuchi had always stayed with him. When he was very small he used to hear his parents call his grandpa Babuji. He would imitate them and end up calling his grandpa Apuchi. And soon everyone started calling Gopalji Apuchi -everyone except Govind and Neeraja.
Anup slept with Apuchi with his tiny arms around his neck. Every night Apuchi would tell him stories. He had retired as a Professor and knew the loveliest stories imaginable. He would take him for walks and on his regular trips to the Bank and Post Office. When he started going to school Apuchi would take him in a rickshaw and bring him back after school. On the way back they would frequently stop at Plaza, a departmental store, and buy something for Anup.
Govind was a Manager in an Insurance Company and Neeraja owned a beauty parlour. Both of them were out most of the day and Anup spent most of his time with Apuchi. To take care of the household work they had a housekeeper. Her name was Sushila but everyone called her mausi. She was a very active and efficient fifty five year old. She was very fond of Anup and whenever Apuchi when to visit his relatives she would take care of him.
That afternoon after school mausi was feeding Anup. They were alone in the house. “Mausi where has Apuchi gone?”
“Beta, he has gone to your Bua daadi’s house?”
“But why did he take so many bags? Will he never come back?”
“I really can’t say beta. I only know that he won’t be coming back in the near future.”
“But why mausi? Does he not love me?”
“Of course he does.”
“Then why did he leave me and go?”
“I can’t answer that question beta?”
“No, you have to answer it or else I won’t eat my food.”
Mausi looked at Anup’s troubled, innocent face and her heart went out to him.
“Okay beta, I’ll tell you but you should not tell your parents anything. If they come to know they will shout at me. The only reason I am telling is you because I don’t want you to misunderstand your parents or think Apuchi doesn’t love you ”
“I promise, I won’t tell anyone.”
“Your Apuchi shifted to this house after retirement. Since then he and your parents have been living together without any major problems. From time to time of course there were arguments and even fights. But these happen in every home. But since the last one year so things started getting worse.”
“I think there are a number of reasons. Apuchi, with age, was getting more and more short tempered. Your mother was gradually getting busier with the expansion of her beauty parlor. Your father also was going through tough times in his office. That was why he was frequently coming home very late. All these things led to a lot of tension in the house. Small, small things, which earlier used to be overlooked, were now leading to serious arguments. Last night while you were sleeping your parents had a major fight with Apuchi. One thing led to another and Apuchi declared that he wanted to leave and settle down with his sister.”
“But why didn’t my father say anything?”
Mausi shrugged, “Your father was also in a bad mood. He just told him, ‘Babuji, if you leave us now then it is better you don’t come back’.”
“What did Apuchi say?
“Okay. I will never come back.”
Anup’s eyes filled with tears. “I will never forgive ma and papa for this.”
“Now, now, that is not fair son. The only reason why I told you all this is so that you wouldn’t blame any one of them. It is not any particular individual’s fault. You know there is a saying ‘You can’t clap with one hand’. Here too the fault is on both sides.”
Ten months went by. Apuchi would ring up sometimes and talk to him. “When are you coming back Apuchi?” He would ask and Apuchi would quickly change the topic and start talking about something else.
One day, a week before his class two final examination, his father called him to his room.
“Anup, earlier you were given grades but this time you will be given ranks. I want you to get the first rank.”
“Yes beta, according to your class teacher Tanvi maa’m, with a little bit of effort you can easily top the class,” his mother had added.
“And if you do I’ll give you a prize - something which you badly want.”
“Okay, papa,” Anup said.
He was a good student and he knew it. More than the prize he wanted to make his parents feel proud of him. He remembered when he had got the first prize in the story telling competition how happy his parents had been. His mother had proudly displayed the cup in the living room. And everyone who came to their house was shown the cup and Anup was asked to tell the story.
The results were out. Anup had come second. He had missed the first rank by just five marks.
That evening Govind and Neeraja were sitting in the bed room.
“I think we should give Anup the prize even though he lost out,” Neeraja said.
“Of course. I have already decided the prize. I will be getting it tomorrow evening.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a cycle. Anup has been wanting one for quite sometime. His old cycle is too small for him.”
“Yes, you are right. He has also told me a couple of times. I think this will be the best possible gift for him. But should we not take him to the shop and let him select?”
“I want to surprise him. He will like the model I have selected. It is bright red with a yellow seat. It has got two baskets - one in the front and a really cute one at the back. I am sure he will love it.”
The next evening Govind asked Mausi to take Anup to Plaza. On the way from the office he picked up the bike and on reaching home took it to Anup’s room. He then asked Neeraja to hang a curtain in front so that the bike would not be visible.
“When Anup comes home take him stratight to his room. We will ask him to pull the curtain. I will be standing in one corner with a camera. I want to catch the look of joy on his face when he sees his surprise gift.
Half an hour later Anup came home. When he entered his room he saw a curtain hanging right in the middle. His father was standing near his study table with his hands behind his back. Puzzled, Anup looked at his mother.
“Pull the curtain Anu. It is your surprise gift.”
“But ma, I did not come first in class.”
“Doesn’t matter beta. You made the effort and that’s more important. Next time we are sure you’ll top the class.”
Anup pulled the curtain. In front of his eyes was a bright and sparkling cycle.
Govind who was ready with his camera was about to click when he stopped. Anup was staring at the cycle with a strange expression on his face.
“What happened son? Didn’t you like it?” Govind asked disappointed at his son’s lack of enthusiasm.
“I...I thought it was my Apuchi sitting behind the curtain,” Anup said and walked out of room.
Stunned Govind and Neeraja stared at each other.
A week later Anup was coming out of his school when he saw his father walking toward him.
“Papa how come you are here at this time?”
“Your ma and I have both taken leave, beta.”
“We have some work. Come let’s go.”
After reaching home Anup, as was his practice, went straight to his room. The door was ajar. He pushed it opened. Standing right in front of him with his arms spread wide was his Apuchi.
For a second Anup stood frozen. He then threw his school bag and rushed straight into the arms of his Apuchi. They hugged and kissed each other as Govind , Neeraja and Mausi watched the tender scene.
Later, when they were sitting and chatting Apuchi told Anup, “Beta we adults sometimes behave like kids. It is on these occasions that God uses little ones like you to teach us adults a lesson.”
“Does it mean you have come back forever, Apuchi?”
“Yes, Anup, our family is once more complete,” Govind said pulling Anup close and hugging him.