She got up with a start. It was her papa's voice. He was calling her. She rushed into the bedroom. Her mother was sitting on the bed. "Mama! Papa called me!"
 
Her mother looked up. Her hair was open and her eyes red.
 
"Don't talk like an idiot, Manasi," she screamed. "You are not a small child anymore. How many times do I have to tell you, your papa is dead. Haven't you seen the photographs of his dead body burning on the pyre? He is gone forever. He will never come back."
 
Manasi turned without a word and went back to her room. She picked up a framed photograph of her father and kept staring at it......

***

It was two weeks prior to Manasi's eleventh birthday. She was lying with her head on her father's lap, her eyes closed. He was sitting on the bed with her mama beside him. They thought she was sleeping.
 
Manasi's father Jaidev Mishra was a tall, broad-shouldered man. He sported a thick, long moustache which he kept twirling whenever he was in a thoughtful mood. He had a booming voice and big, strong hands. Even though he looked tough, at heart he was gentle and sensitive. And one only had to look at his eyes to see the kindness, the warmth which lay behind the rough exterior. Manasi's mother Chitra, in contrast, was small, petite and sharp tongued. Manasi was scared of her temper.
 
"Jai, I really think you are spoiling Manasi too much," Chitra told her husband.
 
"Don't be silly. Have you been reading those agony aunt columns too much? No one gets spoilt by love. One only gets destroyed by lack of it." "Whatever you say, your obsession with Manasi is not healthy. I am telling you for your own good?"
 
"What do you mean Chitra?" Jai demanded.
 
"She is eleven. In another ten years or so she will get married. What is going to happen then? How will you stay without her?"
 
"I've already thought about that. I am going to go with her as part of her dowry. I would be eligible for voluntary retirement by then. I'll take it and go with her. You know Manasi is going to be either a District Collector or an IPS officer. Well, when she returns from duty I'll be there waiting for her. I'll open the door of her car smartly and carry her briefcase inside. I'll do odd jobs for her. I'll work as her chauffeur, bodyguard, secretary or assume any other role she wants me to. I'll happily stay in the outhouse of her bungalow. All I want is to be with my lil' princess."
 
He bent down and kissed her softly on her cheeks.
 
"Really Jai, you don't take anything seriously," Chitra chided.
 
"But, I am serious. Whether you come with me or not, I'll go with my Manasi as her dowry," Jai said gently running his long fingers through his daughter's soft, silky hair. Manasi had inherited her mother's petite charm and her father's sensitive nature. Her eyes were exactly like Jai's : large, expressive and full of warmth.

***

An old song from the Hindi film Kabuliwala was being shown. He had told her the story of the film and she had loved it. The song was one of papa's favourite ones and he often sang it while putting her to sleep. She always slept with her arms around him. Only when she was fast asleep would he gently disengage himself and go to his bedroom. She looked at the TV screen. A pathan was singing and the words were beautiful:
 
Aye mere pyaare watan, aye mere bichde chaman
tujh pe dil kurbaan,
tu hi meri aabroo, tu hi meri aarzoo
tu hi meri jaan...
Ma ka dil banke kabhi seene se lag jata hai tu,
aur kabhi nanhi si beti banke yaad ata hai tu...
(Oh! My beloved country, oh! My lost garden,
For you I sacrifice my life,
You alone are my dignity, you alone my aspiration,
You are my very being....
Sometimes like a mother's heart you take me in your embrace
And sometimes like my little girl you haunt me...)
 
He pulled her close and she glanced up. Tears where streaming down his face. She was surprised, she had never seen him cry. She wanted to ask but she didn't. Somehow she felt those tears were trying to tell her something which words could never convey.>

***

It was seven. Papa still hadn't come home. It was her birthday and he had promised to be home by six. A lot of work remained to be done. The party was to begin at eight and the decoration hadn't even started. That was papa's responsibility. He enjoyed doing it himself. The cake also had be collected from the bakery. She didn't even know what it looked like. It was supposed to be a surprise.
 
She went up the gate for the umpteenth time and looked out. No sign of him. Just then the telephone rang. She rushed and picked up the receiver. It must be papa. This time he was going to get it from her. She wouldn't listen to any excuse.
 
"Papa, do you know what the time is? In less than an hour my friends will start coming..." she started off before Jai could even mumble hello.
 
"Manasi, ma, please don't get angry. I know, I know, I am late. I got stuck in a meeting. My boss is also as difficult to please as you. Please forgive me, ma. I'll be there in ten minutes. I've already collected the cake. It has come out beautiful. I am talking from the bakery. I thought I'll talk to my princess while the cake is being packed. I'll cool her down a bit or she'll put a curse on me and turn me into a toad," he laughed his booming laugh which she loved so much.
 
"Paaapa," she couldn't help smiling. It was so difficult to be angry with him. Whenever she was furious with him he would call her ma in that special voice of his and she would simply melt.
 
"By the way have you worn your birthday dress or not?" Jai asked.
 
"How could I papa? You seem to be forgetting everything today. What did we decide this morning? I will wear the yellow frock as well as the green and red ghahgra and show to you. You will then choose which dress I have to wear for the party."
 
"Oh! Oh! I really forgot. But lil' one does it really matter what you wear. You'll look like a princess even in tatters."
 
"Okay, okay, enough of maska. Come fast, mama is ready to climb walls," Manasi replaced the receiver.

***

At 7.30 the phone rang again. Chitra picked up the receiver.
 
"Bhabhi, Jugal Patnaik here. There...there is bad news..." Jugal Patnaik was Jai's colleague in his office.
 
"Wha...what happened?"
 
"Jai..Jai has had a heart attack. He is in the ICU of Birla Hospital. I have sent the Company vehicle. Please come quickly."

***

Twenty minutes later they were standing in front of the ICU. Mama was holding on to her hand tightly tears flowing down her cheeks. Doctors were rushing in and out. This scene Manasi had seen in many TV serials and films. But she could never have imagined that she would ever be a part of one.
 
The door of the ICU opened and a grave looking doctor came out. He shook his head. Mama started screaming and collapsed on the floor.

***

Later they came to know that he had suffered a stroke in the car on the way home from the bakery.
 
Jugal Patnaik, who was with Jai, rushed him to the hospital. In the ICU he had suffered another stroke which had proved fatal. It had been a shock to everyone. No one could have imagined that such a healthy, jovial and boisterous individual, who never seemed to have a care in the world, would simply cease to exist in a matter of less than an hour.
 
Manasi had seen everyone around her weeping - her mama, daadi, naani, her buaji, Patnaik Uncle and many others. But she hadn't cried. However, she had almost stopped speaking. Every day she would go to Jai's tiny little study and keep staring at his table and his chair for hours together. She would pick up old albums and keep looking at their photographs.
 
Sometimes she would tell her mother, "Mama, why don't you make suji halwa today. You know papa likes it so much."
 
"Have you stitched the button on papa's blue blazer, mama? Winter is coming and he will be wearing it. He looks so handsome in that blazer, much smarter than even Sharukh Khan."
 
Chitra tried explaining to her gently. But she just wouldn't listen.
 
"No, you are all wrong. papa is not dead. I don't believe the photographs. Papa never goes anywhere without telling me. He might not tell you but he always tells me. He loves me much more than anyone in the world. He is just playing chuppa chuppi with me. He'll soon come out of hiding and throwing me high in the air shout - 'See Princess didn't I catch you by surprise' and hug me...."
 
Manasi even refused to go to school. "I want to be there when papa comes home. If he looks for me and doesn't find me here he will be disappointed."

***

Chitra spoke to Dr. Sudeep Verma, their family physician.
 
"For some time just leave her alone, Chitra. She has obviously been affected far more than anyone else. She is still in a state of shock. It is important for her to cry. Once she does that she will gradually get over it."

***

A week later Chopra aunty came home. Her daughter Pinky was getting married and she wanted to show Chitra the purchases they had made for the wedding. Chopra aunty's husband Kuldip Chopra was a businessman and they lived in a palatial house just opposite.
 
Chitra took Manasi along. Even though she didn't want to go she didn't have the energy to resist. They were led straight into the bedroom where everything was laid out, for inspection on a huge double bed. saris of every imaginable colour, design and style, jewelry boxes with their contents shining brightly in the light, dresses, accessories.... were all being admired by half a dozen ladies who had gathered for the show.
 
"Wow is this the wedding dress?" a fat lady in a blue salwar, whom Manasi hadn't earlier seen, picked up a bright red coloured sari with a golden aanchal and border. "It is terrific. It must have cost a lot."
 
"Twenty two thousand ji," Chopra aunty said. And you know each and every item has been hand-picked by Pinky's father. He told me 'Pinky is our only child. I will give her such an exiquisite dowry the whole world will envy'." There was a muffled sound and Chitra looked up. Manasi was staring at Chopra aunty, tears flowing down her cheeks. As Chitra reached out she turned and ran back.
 
Five minutes later when Chitra entered Manasi room she found her lying face down on the bed. Her whole body was shaking. The pillow was wet with tears. In her hand was clutched a photograph of her father's body on the funeral pyre.

 

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