I worked a little bit to clean up the story. For those interested in re-reading it, please do so and let me know what you think.
The alarm pointlessly wailed at 6. There had been no sleep in this room in the hours prior, and now the next onerous task couldn’t be put off any longer. Nandita got out of bed to start getting ready for school.
The hour between 6 and 7 each morning was always the most stressful of the day. Invariably, there were a million unfinished things to be sorted before the very-efficient Madan bhaiya honked the arrival of the school bus at the gate. Today was no exception. Nandita stepped into the bedroom, freshly showered and blow-dried. She looked at the clothes spread on her bed. She was torn between the blue jeans and the grey pants. One expressed casual aloofness, while the other made her look skillful and proficient. Her mind was still numb from what had transpired the evening before, and even though she had been debating between the two outfits since last night, she still didn’t have a decision. Both and neither looked right. Perhaps she needed to check out a third outfit? No, she decided, there was no time for that.
She picked up the jeans and flung the towel. When in doubt, go with the less complicated option. Nandita had used the mantra for most of her life’s decisions. But today, with her life at a crossroads, that simple method of selection was not giving her much direction. Her choices seemed confounding, and there was no one she could share her inner turmoil with.
It had all begun a few months back when Deepak Mehta came into her life. Mr. Mehta, as she was prone to calling him these days, was a tall and good looking man in his mid-30s. He joined the school as a replacement for the retiring Class XII Mathematics teacher. He had an outgoing demeanour and a ready wit, and within no time, no one who he associated with was left unaffected by his charms. Among his adolescent students, the girls found in him their first teenage crush, and the boys looked up to him as their hero. Even teachers – many of them austere ladies of a certain age – could be seen fumbling over his attention and needs. It could be said that Deepak Mehta was the most exciting thing to have happened to The Knowledge Book High School in recent memory.
Much to Nandita’s surprise, nay, vexation, her heart had decided to make up its own mind about Mr. Mehta. It skipped its first beat at the sight of the handsome new teacher in the assembly hall on his very first day. As initial introductions evolved into deeper acquaintances, Nandita, felt the same draw towards him that everyone around was being affected with. She made eager efforts to control the sway but to no avail. Tentative words and sentences, over time, evolved into engaging conversations. The two talked of regular matters of school and studies, and also of other interest such as books, music and literature. For a mathematics teacher, Mr. Mehta was bewilderingly well rounded when it came to the knowledge of the arts, which were Nandita’s main interests. The occasions for the two of them to freely exchange thoughts were few and far between, and she started to yearn for such opportunities to come her way more often. School romances were, obviously, taboo, and she was coy about her growing feelings towards him. Mr. Mehta seemed to play his cards close to his chest – there was no way for her to know whether there was any attraction from his side. If anything, both had pointedly kept themselves from discussing anything about their personal lives.
Days became weeks, which turned into months. There were exams and after-school classes that kept everyone on their toes. Class XII was a busy year, what with Board Exams lurking round the corner. But even stressful times deserved an occasional break – and theirs came in the form of Diwali celebrations. There were melas to be attended, dandiyas to be performed, and food and festivities to be relished. Diwali was a time when everyone felt a little freer and got their guards down a little. The as-yet harmless conversations between Mr. Mehta and Nandita were destined to get serious. And they did.
On the sidelines of the school Diwali mela evening, where students, their parents and teachers mingled freely, Mr. Mehta opened his heart to Nandita for the first time. He said that he had liked her from the day he first saw her. He relished the time they spent together, and pined for more whenever they were apart. His ethics had prevented him from speaking his mind for this long, but no longer. He felt it was time to bare his heart that had held this revelation for so long. The passion he felt towards her was usurping his being.
Perhaps even more importantly, he needed to know if she felt the same about him.
“I love you. Do you feel the same about me?” were the words he spoke as he took her hand.
This was the incredible moment that Nandita had waited for for months. But, incredibly still, this was also the moment that she felt absolutely unprepared for. Mr. Mehta’s disclosure had come all too suddenly and caught her off guard, and the only responsible course of action that came to her mind was to exit the scene. Without a word, Nandita took her hand away from his and ran off the mela ground. The ashen Mr. Mehta was left standing there just as the night’s fireworks erupted in the sky in a riot of colours.
Right, said Nandita, as she decisively clasped her bag and got ready to head to the gate. She hadn’t expected to be, but she was ready a full fifteen minutes ahead of time. Time to head to school…with an answer long pending, she thought.
As she was about to close the main door behind her, she heard her name being called.
Nandita turned back to see Runu, her four year old daughter, waddling towards her. Nandita was surprised because it wasn’t Runu’s wake up time yet. Nandita’s mother, who kept the house while Nandita was away at school teaching, usually let the child sleep until nine. For Runu to wake up this early was very unusual. Perhaps she had sensed the turmoil in her mother’s head, thought Nandita. Perhaps she felt what I needed from her right now was a big, tight hug. Because that is really what I need, she sighed. She hadn’t been able to pay much attention to her daughter these past few days, what with all the preparations for the Diwali events at school.
As the mother and daughter embraced, the child started to articulate the proceedings of her innocent paradise – of what her naani had told her, of what PooPoo the teddy bear had done, of the chocolates she wanted to have for breakfast, and the toys she was going to have adventures with all day. Nandita loved to hear Runu speak – to her, it was like watching someone read verse from a beautiful composition. Each little episode made both the mother’s and daughter’s eyes light up with excitement and tenderness. Today’s animated stories were about the park trip with naani, and with her two best friends from the lane, Roshni and Choton. And Roshni’s doggie, Champ. And Choton’s dad, who had made her sit on the swing and had pushed it so hard that she went higher and higher till she could almost touch the sky! Naani could never push the swing like that! And then, when Choton’s dad had made Champ play with the frisbee, the three children, and naani had laughed and laughed! The child’s story spilled forth amidst infectious chortles.
With only one part of her mind engaged with Runu’s talkfest, Nandita’s consciousness strayed into the past – it had started to do that quite often lately. Her college romance, the wonderful wedding, the blissful years, Runu’s arrival, the crazy family holidays with the baby, Runu’s first steps, her first word…Papa…the car crash. Just like that, Atul was gone from their lives. Nandita had lost her friend, philosopher and guide. More like joker, rock and punching bag! For Runu, Nandita felt, it was even harder. She could never understand why Papa would go so far away as to not come back even when she cried very hard – didn’t he love her any more? But just as commonly, the child’s trusting mind was quick to forgive Papa for his absence as well. At every tea party, table settings were still being made for Mamma, naani, PooPoo the bhaalu, and Papa, with Runu playing host. One piece of every chocolate was still being cast aside for Papa. Projects were still being lined up for Papa once he returned.
It had taken six months of fortitude for Nandita to try to get back on her feet. And just as her life starting growing green shoots again, destiny sent Mr. Mehta her way.
The bus honked outside the gate and brought Nandita out of her reverie.
“So, what does Runu baba want her mamma to get for her this evening?” asked Nandita, trying to talk like PooPoo. It was a ritual mother and daughter shared every day – gifts of candy, chocolates or small toys shared in the evening as all the three ladies of the household bonded over unfettered warmth. Usually, Runu was pat with an answer to a question like that but today she seemed unsure, skeptical.
The bus honked again.
“What it is beta?” asked Nandita, as she gently arranged a stray lock on Runu’s forhead. “Mamma’s bus is here. Do you want her to get the big Dairy Milk today?”
The dithering child finally looked up and with beseechingly wide eyes mumbled, ”Mamma, can I have a new Papa?”