It was Ganesh Chaturthi and aai was busy with the Ukdiche modak preparations. Kajal and Krunal loitered around her in the kitchen, trying to steal bites from the stuffing despite aai’s watchful eyes. These days aai was rarely at home to spend time with them. Baba too was involved with work… some special case, he said, and he hadn’t been home for a week and had come yesterday. But it was late in the night when he had arrived, and he and aai had fought in their room. He had left today early morning, not before he kissed the children goodbye. He wasn’t coming tomorrow for Ganpati either, and mama was to get the idol home. Kajal missed her parents. Her little self couldn’t understand why her parents needed to act like this… things were so good before. But last few months everything had changed. Aai finished making the modaks and packed some separately, and kept it away. Who was it for?
The next day after the evening aarti in her father’s absence, the visarjan took place in the nearby pond. Krunal went to their housing colony Ganpati Pandal with other children, and Kajal’s slipper broke. She rushed home to change into another pair, but as she approached the house she saw aai rush, holding a polythene bag… it had that modak dabba she had kept away. Where was aai taking it? For baba? Kajal followed aai in her innocent excitement about seeing baba. But, she kept her distance as she didn’t want aa- baba to reprimand her.
She stopped in her tracks as her aai walked out of the main exit to a waiting car… wow… such a huge car. . She stood glued to the hard ground as the window of the passenger seat behind slid down, and aai passed on the packet through it. Aai spoke to someone inside for a while, and Kajal decided to check out further. Would she get a ride in the lovely car belonging to aai’s friend? She reached behind aai and heard a tune… that was a little eerie, but she then saw someone lit a cigarette… oh, mama had called it lighter. She had seen it in a movie too. The lighter wasn’t visible, but the music was ingrained in her mind.
Kajal saw his veined palm as the man dropped the ash outside the car window as aai continued to talk to him,
“… you know I can’t come tonight… it’s very late already, and my husband is now suspecting me….”
“… what about me Sheetal…? We miss you too… you know that, right…?” Kajal heard the man speak, his deep voice sending shivers down her spine. And why was he calling her mother ‘Sheetal’…?
“No ji… please leave for today… I promise I will be there tomorrow at the earliest… ‘baba’’s birthday is coming up, and I have promised to cook his favorite dishes…”
“…Just ‘baba’…? What about ‘baba’s father…? Don’t make me wait darling… you know… I hate to wait… Ok then come home tomorrow morning and once you are done entertaining ur ‘baba,’ then come to the factory…”
The car rode away and her mother turned around to see her. Kajal thought she would be angry but instead, she had tears in her eyes as she hugged her tightly.
“Kajal, my baby… just remember, I love you very much… both you and Krunal…and everything I am doing is only for you, OK?”
Kajal had only nodded, not realizing the gravity of the situation. She was only too happy to see her mother home for longer than usual, and aai had hugged her…
There was a loud honking…..
Kajal jerked up, startled by the loud doorbell rung in repeats exactly like Krunal did when he was impatient. She stood up quickly and checked herself in the mirror, and wiped her eyes. She had lost track of time as she navigated the sporadic memories that the folder had triggered from her past.
Krunal walked in straight to their room and changed his clothes before he hit the sack.
“Krunal, are you alright? Do you want to talk?” She made a last-ditch attempt to ask him.
“Tai… I am tired and sleepy…”
“But Krunal, tomorrow onwards we will barely get time…”
“…So what tai? You had promised to be back early but got late… so what difference does it make… I know you are busy too tai…”
“…Not busy enough for my brother Krunal…please talk to me.” She found herself desperate. Her brother had been too small and confused when their aai had left. She feared he still had the scars.
“tai… will you leave as well…?”
“What…? No… why do you even ask?” Kajal was now really worried.
“Even aai would be busy, and then she left… and then baba… and now you are super busy… will you also leave.?”
She sat up next to him, caressing his hair. “I promise you, Krunal I won’t leave you…. And let’s stop blaming aai… I don’t think…”
“…I won’t tai… I can’t stop blaming her….” Krunal swiftly sat up straight. “…Aai betrayed baba and us.”
“What are you saying Krunal?”
“I read that folder tai… the one you tried to hide from me. I had seen Ganpat kaka give it to you. I hate her tai…” He looked away, rubbing his face. SO was that troubling him all this while?
“Krunal, listen to me… all that’s there is only one part of what happened. We will talk to Ganpat kaka after my exams and find out what was missing. But you should let go, Krunal… don’t carry this burden in your heart.”
“What about you, tai? I have seen you slog it out, listen to crap spewed by mami and Poonam for no fault of yours. Baba also was living dead for all these years and I am yet to complete my studies to help you…”
“Don’t worry about me Krunal, I am fine. Once I finish the degree, I shall get a better job. Maybe in a bank… the timing will be fixed too… I am also trying for the government sector. Though the salary will be on the lesser side I can avail of staff quarters… so we can move. Ganpat kaka had promised to help, and I was to see him after the exam. The police will give me a good recommendation letter because of baba. So relax alright?” She rubbed his back as he nodded.
Later as he drifted off to sleep, Kajal cried silently. She really wished she could remember something concrete about that vehicle and that man. She had only heard his voice and not seen him… just listened to that lighter…Lighter…?
Wait… she suddenly sat up again, rubbing her chest. It was the same sound from the lighter that KB had.
Was that a strange coincidence, or was there more to it? She had to see Ganpat kaka at the earliest.
Kajal knew Ganpat kaka took Friday off from duty most of the time and compensated on Sunday. He visited the Mahalaxmi temple every Friday, so she knew where to find him. So she called him in the morning, and they agreed to meet up in Mahalaxmi that evening.
Later in the office, she finished her paperwork and Shipra, who was relieved her son was fine but not resumed work, barked orders over the phone, and Kajal diligently went about following them to a T.
She was glad she could get away on time and reached Mahalaxmi, barely making it before Ganpat kaka sent a search party for her. She saw the aging man seated close to a flower stall and waved to her as he saw her. But, as always, Mahalaxmi was pretty crowded on Fridays, and she had to waddle in the crowd to reach him.
“Kashi aahes Kajal?” he asked (how are you Kajal)
“Bari aahe me kaka… (I am fine kaka) There was something I had to talk to you about.” She fiddled with her dupatta corner as she spoke.
“looks like you read that folder…”
“…yes kaka. I did. Did you see that… man kaka?”
“yes beta… your father only had doubts till then, but that day he was shattered and never the same. We were working on a critical case and your baba had given his heart and soul to it for months. Had he been successful, he would have gotten a promotion and also a transfer to Colaba… but that day… he cried like a baby…” Ganpat kaka rubbed his face.
“Its difficult to believe aai could do it…”
“I know beta, but we saw it that day.”
“Kaka, what did baba ask you to get him…?”
“Beta let it go… I don’t want to taint your memories of him.” He spoke softly.
“Please kaka… I need to know. I need some closure, especially since aai hasn’t returned… I am sure there is something we don’t know. Aai would never leave Krunal and I…”
Ganpat kaka sighed. “Kajal Beta, your father was heavily bogged down by work pressure. I am not at liberty to share details mainly because I was a mere constable and didn’t know much. But your baba had ruffled some feathers in political circuits and was flowing upon a crucial lead when we heard that… that man had died. But your aai never returned, and that broke your baba further. So… then, one day, he heard about that man’s son being in Mumbai. He followed it up and found the guy was a junkie. I don’t exactly know the details… but the guy was out celebrating his eighteenth birthday…” kaka looked away.
“…wha… what happened then…?” She asked with bated breath.
“…your baba wanted to spike his drink and get him arrested… he had friends in the Narcotics wing whom he decided to tip off… you know Kajal, how it goes. One blot on his character called ‘drugs’ was enough to ruin the guy. I dissuaded him from going overboard. But he didn’t budge… blinded by rage, he arranged a packet of LSD, and we forced the bartender to spike the guy’s drink… We only intended to get him arrested… but…”
“But what kaka…?” her heart fell.
“But… the boys didn’t stay back in the hotel that night they took to the wheels…”
“Oh my God, kaka… no…” she said, barely whispering.
“Yes, child…the accident was the worst ever…I had followed them from a distance but had a flat tire minutes before they… all of them died that night, Kajal. Their heads were severed…” Kaka looked away again before he continued. “…when your father heard about it, he was so guilt-laden that he didn’t know where he was going… he fell on the tracks… but Kajal, I know he must have tried to…”
“…No kaka… baba wouldn’t commit suicide… he was strong…”
“Kajal beta, your baba was my childhood friend… but that man in those last few months wasn’t the man I knew… he had become a different individual… I covered it all else he wouldn’t have received a penny from the department.” Ganpat kaka rubbed his face.
Kajal was forlorn… what on earth was that. Her baba wanted to kill himself but remained vegetative for a decade till he breathed his last. Why baba, why…? Why didn’t you think of us? She was angry and sad and frustrated, unable to fathom the gamut of emotions she felt.
Ganpat kaka stood up, patting her head. “Kajal, heed my advice. Let the past go. Nothing can be achieved out of it. If your aai had to return, she would have by now. So let her be. Look forward; you and Krunal have a lifetime spread before you. Just let bygones go.”