It’s a fact that we crave what we don’t have, but we care naught for what we have in hand.
Like the young ones impatient to run out of the gates of her daughter’s High School, who wanted nothing more than to give up the confines of the school and their homes and burst out unbidden into the world; or like she, who longed to return to the age of those loving confines of home and school, when the most you had to worry about were your grades.
She felt a hard tap on her forehead, “Earth to Mars. Is daydreaming on our agenda again?”
How did I miss her walking towards me? Meenal’s impish grin at her mother seemed to tell her she knew just why. My god! Now she knows what I’m thinking about too. Kids grow fast!
“Hop in, I’m running late.” She put the key in the ignition and started the car, while Meenal made herself comfortable in the passenger seat.
“So, how was it?” Rijul was concerned about this one. It was Maths, not Meenal’s strong suit.
“Aaah, I was hoping you’d ask me that after I got home and you were back at your desk.” She rolled her eyes in defeat.
Rijul gave her a concerened look. “That bad?”
“Weeeeeeell, let’s just say, I won’t top the class, but I won’t be among the bottom feeders either… hopefully.” That last was muttered under the breath.
Rijul sighed heavily as she took the car out from the parking area at Meenal’s school. “Meenal, just don’t fail. I’m not expecting any miracles from you as far as Maths is concerned. Hang on till the Boards next year, and after that you can kick Maths out of your life.”
“I thought you wanted me to take up commerce.” The shock was evident in Meenal’s voice.
“Not if you don’t do well in Maths. There’s no point in you hating what you do for a living.”
“Aw, Mommy, you’re the best!” Meenal blew her a kiss. Rijul smirked. She knew what it was like to be bad at Maths.
“So, what do you want to do now?” Rijul changed the subject. No one liked to talk about an unpleasant topic at the start of summer vacations.
Meenal stretched herself languorously on the passenger seat. “First, I’m going to take a nice, warm bath with your expensive bathing oils,”
“Oh yes, you’ve had your eye on them for sometime”, Rijul grinned.
“And then, I’m going to get a fat bottle of chilled soda, take it upto my room and dig into that book I’ve been dying to read, while I play music at the loudest that my stereo can go…”
“The neighbours aren’t going to be happy…”
“The neighbours can eat cake. For once Sharma Auntyji’s bhajan-kirtan aren’t going to be the only music playing in the neighbourhood.”
That was a funny visual, Rijul conceded and she laughed as she pictured Mrs. Sharma’s scandalized face over sounds of hard rock floating in through her pristine white curtains.
“That sounds fun, but I meant what do you want to do in the summer?”
“You mean apart from those horrid extra classes that we have from next month? Uhh, I don’t know. Haven’t thought of it yet. Maybe I’ll just be, like a cat, in a nice corner of the house. That isn’t so bad is it?”
“No, no, not at all. But maybe you could do a few useful things, like go for hobby classes or that summer camp…”
“Mom, I’m not 10 anymore!”
That sounded definitive, so Rijul just dropped the topic. Fine, let her just ‘be’ this summer, she thought. This may be the last, carefree summer of her life. Once the Boards fever starts, she won’t get time for herself.
The phone started to ring. It was Meenal’s father and she dove down to retrieve Rijul’s phone to answer the call.
“Hi Papa!” She said in sing-song.
“Hi my little baby…”
“Papa, I’m not little anymore!” Meenal pouted at the phone. Her teenage ego got hurt far too easily these days.
“Sorry, baba, sorry. How were your exams?”
“Oh, just fine. Except Maths. You know how I hate Maths.”
“Yes, we all do. But now that they’re over, just relax. How about you come with me on that cruise I’m going to next week?”
Meenal’s eyes were about to pop out of her skull. She squealed with excitement, “Really Papa? You mean that? Really, really mean that?”
Her father was obviously pleased with her reaction. “I wouldn’t be saying it darling, if I didn’t mean it. I had been keeping it from you because I didn’t want to distract you during your exams. I know you’ll have fun. There will be Rivka to keep you company.”
“Oh?” Meenal wasn’t too happy about that, but she decided she could suffer her for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I guess we’ll have to talk to Mom about it first”, Papa sounded conspiratorial.
“Umm, yeah. Here talk to her.” And without preamble she handed the phone to Rijul. Rijul took the call but not without shooting Meenal a look that had ‘this could’ve waited; I’m driving’ written all over it. She brought the car to a halt at the side of the road. No talking over the phone while driving for her. She was a responsible woman.
“Hi Mridul.” She was careful not to show any inflection in her voice.
So was he. “Hi Rijul, how have you been?”
“Good, good. What’s this you father-daughter are conspiring about?” She eyed a saucer-eyed Meenal. Those puppy dog stares meant there was something she wanted that Mommy wouldn’t approve of.
“Ha ha! Well I’m going for a cruise next week and I thought maybe Meenal could join us, before she dives back into her extra classes at school… of course if you agree.”
Of course! That’s why she was the last to know about it. She didn’t like the plan. And ‘us’ meant there were… “Rivka and Meenal don’t get along much, you know that.”
She could feel him sigh silently at the other end. “I know but I’ve had a word with Rivka since that day and I’ve warned her about her behaviour. Besides I’ll take responsibility for the girls. Don’t worry about it. Meenal was supposed to spend three weeks with me anyway, so why not on this cruise? I know she’ll have fun.”
She sighed. She knew she couldn’t argue about it, even if she didn’t like the idea. He was her father and he had visiting rights. He had been a good father too, inspite of their differences. Besides, Meenal was old enough to decide now how she wanted to spend her time and with who.
“Fine…” Meenal was already doing a victory dance on the passenger seat, “Send me the details and I’ll let you know by tonight. There will be visas to worry over too. And the court orders.”
“I’ll take care of all that. You just give me the green light.” He sounded excited himself. At least there was that.
“Alright. I’ll call you tonight. Bye.” She hung up just as she heard a click from his side, and then looked over at Meenal, who was grinning from ear to ear.
“Guess what I’m doing this summer, Mommy?!”
Rijul couldn’t help but laugh. She could do anything to make her daughter happy. Even if that meant letting her go overseas with her divorced husband and step-sister.
She started the car again. She was really late for work, but she had to drop Meenal off at home first. A few minutes later, they stopped at a traffic light. Rijul noticed that Meenal had suddenly gone quiet, as if the talk about the cruise had never happened.
“What’s wrong? Having second thoughts about the cruise?” Rijul asked.
She noticed Meenal staring at a billboard for a Life Insurance policy. It had a picture of a typical Indian family. The right male-female ratio and the right smiles.
Thank god, the light’s turned green. She quickly put the car into gear and drove on.
Silence abounded in the car. When finally Meenal spoke up, she was careful in choosing her words, “Mom, are we… a happy family?”
Rijul was shocked. Where did that come from? Her girl was generally a very happy, chirpy individual. Where was this insecurity coming from?
“Why are you asking me that? Did someone say something to you at school? Or… did we do anything wrong?” She could feel heat rising in her cheeks and worry gnawing at her insides.
“No, no one said anything to me. Relax, Mom. Forget I even said it.” Meenal tried to play it down but Rijul was already wound up.
“Meenal, why did you say that?”
Silence again. But this time it was pregnant with anticipation.
“It’s just… sometimes when my friends or even other people are talking around us about their families, they notice us and they go all quiet. Like this one time, Piyali was talking about her family going out for a vacation, and when I entered the room, she shut up immediately. I told her to keep going, but she said, ‘No, it’s nothing great.’ Y’know Mom the whole group had gone quiet and they kept trying not to look at me. I just…” She threw her hands up in the air.
“You just what? You felt bad?” Rijul probed.
“No! Well… yeah, but not the way they thought I would feel bad. Remember that time when Mrs. Solanki told you that you must miss family time because Papa wasn’t with you anymore, you…”
“I told her my family is right here with me, I remember.” Rijul finished for Meenal.
“Yeah. Remember how later you told Nanu that you feel irritated that people would just assume that a family only means a man, a woman and kids. You said you felt complete with me and Nanu-Nani in your life.”
“Yes, I remember and I stand by it even now. But why bring that up now?”
“Well, I broke up with Piyali a few days back. We aren’t friends anymore.” Piyali was Meenal’s best friend. Something really serious must have happened between the two.
“You want to talk about it?” Rijul proceeded carefully.
“There isn’t anything to talk about. After that episode I just told you about, I found out she would frequently go around telling our other friends how I must feel ‘abnormal’ whenever they discussed their families.”
Rijul was aghast. Kids could be really cruel sometimes. “She said that? That you’re abnormal.”
“Yes Mom, Shweta confirmed it for me.”
Rijul went quiet. She didn’t know what to say because she was shaken to the core by this… revelation. Since the divorce, when she was pregnant with Meenal, she had tried her best to give Meenal a home that she could feel safe in, surround her by a set of people who would give her nothing but unconditional love and support. Of course people talked. But it had stopped bothering her after a few years, and eventually people had stopped talking too. It had been hard, so very hard, for her to raise her daughter and earn at the same time, but she didn’t want a penny of Mridul’s high society money, even when she was legally entitled to it. All she wanted from Mridul was to sometimes be a father to Meenal. She could manage the rest all by herself, thank you very much.
She was close to tears, when Meenal spoke up again, oblivious to the deluge she was holding back in her eyes.
“I’m sorry I even mentioned this. I know it must be upsetting to you, but Mom, I don’t feel deficient in any way.”
Rijul steeled herself and asked Meenal, “Then why that question?”
“I just… I guess I just wanted you to confirm for me that a happy family doesn’t need a father or a mother to complete it… It needs happy people. I know you and Papa love me a lot, you just don’t love each other. But you two have always been there for me whenever I needed you. I have you, Papa, Nanu and Nani in my life. Dada-Dadi, they’re always sweet to me even if they don’t get along with you. I’m okay with all of that because I get that not everyone in a family gets along with everybody. Like Piyali and her sister. God knows how they’re even related, they hate each other. I know that what matters is that we should love and respect one another and support each other unconditionally… and I see that in this bunch of people I call ‘family’. I just wish people would stop looking at us like we’re broken just because we don’t have a man in the equation. You guys are my happy family and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”
Rijul was quiet, because she didn’t know how to express her gratitude to God for having gifted her a sensitive and intelligent girl like Meenal. Because she didn’t know whether to kiss her and make her feel awkward, or to burst out in tears and make her feel horrible.
“Oh god, Mom noooooo! You’re not going all teary-eyed on me now, are you? Oh man! I’m getting out of this car. This is so embarrassing!”
“And who’s fault is that? And you stay put in that seat, young lady. The car’s moving!”
Rijul laughed sheepishly even as happy tears slid down her face. It was alright. Meenal was alright. They were alright. This was the stuff happy families were made of.
Copyright ©2017 Pradita Kapahi.
All rights reserved.
Image sources: www.pixabay.com