This is a story about Reena, a young lady in her very early thirties, her 5 year old daughter Minnie and an old man who is a recent neighbour.
I had the same feeling when I retired after 42 years of service in a chemical industry as I had when I left the orphanage after graduating with a diploma in materials management.
While I was leaving, Father Pinto told me: ‘Son, the time has come for us to part. You have been an excellent ward and have grown into a mature, responsible and sensitive person. Good bye, son. Lead a good life. Don’t forget to help others the way God has helped you.’
I had walked into an unfamiliar world. It was an arid expanse of land. Three tall chimneys were emitting clouds of yellow smoke from an L-shaped building that was the main plant. It settled on the rooftop covering it in a film of yellow powder. If one stayed for long in the open area of the plant, one’s eyes would burn. A little distance away was the office, neat and spacious. I, as an assistant manager, had a decent cabin for myself. Our living quarters were nearly half a kilometer away with a club with facilities like a swimming pool, tennis and badminton courts and a cafeteria.
Factory to home, home to factory was my routine for 42 years. Every year I spent my 8-10 days’ annual leave with Father Pinto at the orphanage and gave a donation regularly. I did not visit the orphanage after Father Pinto passed away, but sent my donations without fail.
After my retirement I chose a quiet neighbourhood in the suburbs of Mumbai to resettle. I moved into a first floor apartment in a building called ‘Cozy Nook’. My neighbour’s flat entrance had two doors for extra security, the outer one with a partial grille. It had two locks and a brass name plate with Reena Ranjit Katyal BSc., B.Ed.’ engraved on it.
It did not take me long to arrange my meager belongings neatly. I felt the need to engage a housemaid, to sweep and mop. Just then there was a knock at the door and a middle-aged, decent looking lady introduced herself as Shanta bai. She said she had been working for 30 years with the Kamats next door ever since Reena was a baby and had continued even after ‘Reena baby’s’ marriage.
Reena baby is away but I come to clean the place. I saw your door unlocked and just wanted to find out who had come to live next door.’
She told me that at present my neighbor lived alone with her daughter, Minnie, and that her husband, Ranjeet, had recently taken up a job in phoren and Reena and Minnie were to join him soon. Reena, she said, had stopped working soon after her marriage.
My friends had strongly recommended that I keep a pet to prevent loneliness as I would be living on my own, though I had always lived alone!
‘Go in for a dog,’ they had said. “He will keep you company even in your sleep.” And so dog it was—a cross between a dachshund and a stray, but with more of dachshund in him. I named him Sputnik. I guess he was about 10 weeks old, full of energy, with a very amiable personality.
Yes, he did keep me busy. I took him out during my morning walks and evening strolls. Quite a few people seemed to enjoy watching him. One of them was Mrs. Mendes, a retired principal of a local convent school who lived a few blocks away from my house in a pretty cottage camouflaged with creepers, shrubs and flowering plants. I would tip my cap on noticing her and she would acknowledge my greeting with a nod.
One day she asked me, “How old is he? We too had a dachshund.”
“I think he’s 10 to 12 weeks,” I said.
Sputnik became a hot favorite with the kids of the building. He had abundant energy and ran faster than all the children put together.
It was a tiresome journey. The so-called luxury bus had two punctures, and a traffic jam followed. At last the bus entered the city. I was weary and dispirited.
I had cried all the way back from Goa-silently weeping for the past that had sadly closed its doors on me. I mourned the loss of my gentle, timid mother, Aai, and for the childhood home where I had spent many happy holidays with Baba, Aai and my elder brother, Dada. I would never see my Goa home again.
Dada had hardened his heart towards me after I married Ranjeet against his wishes. While I was in Goa he had refused to speak to me. It was only after Aai’s funeral that he turned to me with a look of loathing. ‘Baba has left you the town house. So stay there and don’t step into the Goa house ever again. From the day you married that good-for-nothing Ranjeet against my wishes, you have been dead to me!’ These words were still ringing in my ears as I landed in Bombay.
My carefree life in Bombay with my parents flashed across my mind. Old memories came unbidden to the surface. But now it’s all over and I must look ahead to my life with Ranjeet and Minnie. They are all I have got.
Ranjit was my classmate in college for two years. He was also my partner for Physics practicals. After the 12th he joined IIT, Khargpur. I scored a high percentage and could have joined medicine but Baba was of the opinion that the medical profession was not suitable for a woman. So I ended up by doing B.Sc. I did very well in my B.Sc. exam. Baba was very happy and I heard him tell Aai, ‘It is time that we start looking for a suitable match for Reena.’ I tried my best to dissuade them. I pleaded, to be allowed to do my M.Sc. or at least a B.Ed. At last it was settled for B.Ed.
One day while I was returning home, I met Ranjit. He had finished his engineering studies and had got a job in a Mumbai firm and was on the lookout for paying guest accommodation. He asked me if I knew where Cozy Nook apartment was. I told him to accompany me as that was the building where I lived with my parents and elder brother. Ranjeet found paying guest accommodation in the same building and we soon became good friends. Soon after I finished my B.Ed., Baba had a severe stroke and passed away.
I took up a job in my former school. I spent most of my free time giving Aai company, as she was very lonely without Baba. Ranjeet would often drop in, bringing a whiff of fresh air to lighten up the atmosphere when he was in town between his travels to other parts of India in the course of his work.
As the days passed, I found myself getting closer to Ranjeet and before I knew it, I was deeply in love with him. He could make us laugh with his sense of humour and Aai looked forward to his visits as much as I did. He would often take me out for dinner or to a movie or just for a stroll in the neighbourhood park.
One night, after dinner at the Chinese Room he gently pulled me close to him and whispered, ‘Before leaving you at your door I want you to come to my apartment.’ I felt myself being led, in spite my better judgment, to follow him into his house. No sooner was the door shut behind us than he enveloped me in a tight embrace, whispering sweet words in my ears—words I had longed to hear. And the inevitable happened. I spent most of that night curled up beside him, my arm flung across his hairy chest. Nothing mattered any more. Society could frown upon us, my family could disown us, but our union would stand firm like a rock surrounded by stormy waves.
Aai was shocked, Dada was furious. ‘You can jump into the sea for all I care. Aai, I don’t think we should live in this house with her.’
By the next week Dada managed to get his firm to transfer him to Goa and the following week he left for Goa for good. Poor Aai! She had no say in the matter and accompanied Dada, like a dutiful mother to look after her son’s needs.
‘How could you do this?’ she said to me in a voice choked with emotion. ‘I did all I could to bring you up in a decent, upright manner and this is how you repay me?’ But the day she left, she clung to me, crying, ‘My poor, poor child, may God protect you and look after you.’ She was terrified that Ranjeet would soon tire of me and then desert me. Between sobs I tried to assure her that he was an honourable man and do nothing of that sort. We clung to each other as only a mother and daughter who knew how vulnerable they were. In my heart of hearts I knew that she would never be able to be, by my side again. I had lost her forever.
Ranjit and I had a quiet wedding. There were no relatives to bless us, only friends to cheer. As Baba willed this apartment to me, Ranjit moved into it. Soon we were blessed by a daughter, Minnie. My cup of happiness overflowed. But how long could one live in paradise?
After we started our life together I realized that Ranjit was burdened with the responsibility of sending a sizeable amount of his income to his parents. He needed a better paid job. He eventually found one based in Singapore and without a thought for Minnie or me, he joined his new company. I did not want him to leave me behind with Minnie. He brushed all my fears and concerns aside in the desire to make more money.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, darling. Many women have husbands living abroad and manage quite well. You are an educated woman and I expect you to handle the situation well.’
‘But we need you.’ I pleaded. ‘Minnie needs her father. Don’t we mean anything to you? Couldn’t you find another job here?’
‘Stop being childish, Reena. What sort of a wife are you not to rejoice in your husband’s good fortune? And it’s not as if I am deserting you for years. In a couple of months, after your visa comes through, you will be able to join me,’ said Ranjeet, knowing full well how difficult it was to get a visa for Singapore.
He pulled me roughly to him and silenced my objections with a hard kiss, devoid of all tenderness. With a flash of bitter understanding I realized that our marriage was based on my willing subjugation to all his whims and fancies. The minute I stood up for myself the fault lines became visible. He could not bear to be crossed in any way. I felt drained of all emotion. Even when he had held me in his arms, promising never to leave me, he had been all the while planning to leave us.
A month after he left for Singapore Ranjit wrote back saying that he had already rented a partly furnished apartment. I had never been outside the country. The thought of going all the way to Singapore alone with Minnie made me nervous. More nervous because it was nearly six months since Ranjit had left and there was still no sign of the visa.
Six months have passed since I have been living in this apartment. I enjoy my regular routine of morning walks and evenings spent with the kids and Sputnik around the open space of the building.
Little Minnie was quite a leader among the kids and claimed more rights on Sputnik since she was his direct neighbor.
But one evening I found Minnie at her door, her clothes untidy, her hair disheveled, and her face smudged with dried tears, not at all like the confident outgoing child that she was.
Sobbing, she said, ‘She is not opening the door, she is a bad Mamma.’
I had never dealt with kids. So I took refuge in Sputnik and said, ‘Let us tell Sputnik what happened.’ It worked.
I took her into my apartment and made her sit with Sputnik. She stopped sobbing and started telling me what was troubling her. I made a drink of hot chocolate and offered it to her along with some cookies. Initially she refused to touch the food but after a pause she eagerly accepted it saying, ‘Don’t tell Mumma.’ I kept mum.
Sprinkling a few drops of eau de cologne on my handkerchief, I sponged her face which was wet and grimy where Sputnik had licked it. To amuse her further, I drew out my sketch pad and sketched her with Sputnik sitting beside her. She soon cheered up.
Just then the door bell rang. On opening the door, I faced Reena who was in a similar condition as Minnie had been earlier. She looked miserable and anxious, and then furious to see Minnie in my house. Ignoring me, she yanked Minnie who was tugging at the sketch I had drawn for her, off the chair, and dragged her protesting all the way home.
I felt a bit uneasy for the rest of the evening. Something serious seemed to have happened.
Next day Shantabai came early. Without a word of explanation she sat down on a chair.
‘You know what has happened? How can you? Reena got a shock when Ranjeet’s friend suddenly arrived at her doorstep to collect Ranjeet’s belongings which Reena was supposed to take with her to Singapore.
After a brief pause, she said, ‘It is not good. You see, my poor child has been waiting all these months for that good-for-nothing man and he takes off with another woman, Kajol, who is supposed to be his colleague!’
To calm her down, I told Shantabai to make us some tea.
This information confirmed my doubts. I was keen to get more details about this episode. But I hesitated to broach the subject to Reena. My interaction with her had been limited to exchanging pleasantries, or talking about Minnie.
Six days had gone by and I was none the wiser. The atmosphere still appeared to be tense. On the seventh day my door bell rang in the morning. It was the postman. ‘Saab, there is a registered letter for Reena Katyal. I have been ringing her door bell but no one is answering it. Is she out of station? If not, will you please tell her to collect the letter from the post office between 10 am and 3 pm in the next three days?’
I froze. ‘Yes, yes-yes, I will tell her so. By the way, who is the sender?’
He gave the name of a lawyer’s firm. This made me even more uneasy. I waited to hear the sound of Reena’s door opening.
An hour later I heard it. I waited a full 10 minutes looking at the clock. Then I gently rang Reena’s door bell.
‘Who is it?’ she asked without opening the door.
‘It is I, your neighbor,’ I replied.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘There is a message for you.’
The door was partially opened after some time.
‘Yes?’ she asked, half hidden behind the door.
I gave her the postman’s message and to prolong the conversation said, ‘It’s from a lawyer’s firm-Chourasia and Associates.’
‘A lawyer’s firm? And for me? How is that possible?’ she mumbled.
‘In case you are tired I could pick up the letter for you. You just have to give me a letter of authority.’
‘Oh, no thank you, I will do it later,’ she said.
“Please do carry some identification card with you. If you want I can come along.’
‘Oh, that’s quite ok. I will manage,’ she replied in an uncertain tone.
God, what is happening to me? Ranjeet has stopped depositing his salary in our joint bank account since the last three months. He has also redeemed all his FDs. Neither have I heard from him nor do I have his telephone number to find out what’s happened. To add to all this, he sent his friend to collect all his belongings that I was supposed to bring to Singapore with me.
I have no one to confide in. Aai is no more and most of the people I socialize with are just fair-weather friends…and they would love to gossip!
I considered all the alternatives and thought that my best option would be to confide in my kindhearted neighbour.
I debated for a while and then made up my mind to take refuge in the old man’s kindness. I stood at his door and before I knew it, had rung the door bell. The old man opened the door immediately as though he was waiting for me.
To start the conversation, I said, ‘Sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to check with you if my PAN card would be considered a valid ID?’
‘Safer to take along your voter’s card too,’ the Old Man said.
Then, after a long pause, I said, “If it’s not too much of a bother, would you come along with me?”
‘It’s no bother, Reena, I will be happy to accompany you,’ he immediately replied.
We drove in his car to the post office. On the way a sudden calmness swept over me. I was not alone any more.
I stopped her from opening the letter till we reached my apartment. Once we were seated in the living room I said to her, ‘Reena let us hope it’s something trivial. However, even if it is not, please remember that you are not alone.’
With trembling hands she tore open the envelope.
It was an unsigned Joint Affidavit before the Hon’ble court of Judicial Magistrate First Class at Pune.
Application for divorce by husband and wife U/S 13-B of HMA 195.
She read just the title, the envelop fell to the ground, wide-eyed, she stared into space. At first she did not utter a word and then suddenly she started sobbing.
For a moment I did not know what to do. I picked up the letter from the floor, read the contents, and was taken aback by what I read.
I tried to comfort her and suggested that we read the legal documents carefully. She tried to calm down and turned to me to understand the implications of the notice.
Then she exploded, ‘There is no point reading it. It’s obvious that he wants to divorce me. It’s very clear that all this was planned before he went to Singapore. What a coward!’
I admired her grit and courage.
I said, “I think the first thing to do is to protect Minnie. Let her not get even a whiff of what has happened and will happen. There has to be no talk of the situation in her presence. Warn Shantabai not to say anything in front of her. It’s not easy to remain cheerful but for Minnie’s sake we have to try and be our normal and cheerful selves.’
Lying on my bed, I cried my heart out. But I remembered the Old Man’s words, sat up and tried to calm myself. I washed my face and tidied my hair. I called out to Minnie to find out what she was doing.
Minnie replied, ‘Momma, see I am drawing a picture of the plane we are going to take to meet Papa.’
It broke my heart but with great difficulty I held back my tears.
“Minnie, why don’t you show your drawing to grandpa next door?’ I said. Minnie cheerfully bounced out of her house to do so.
Minnie ran in, all excited, clutching her drawing.
“Grampa, see the plane that will take us to Papa. You can also come with us, but don’t forget to carry a small bag with you because you will have to come back to Mumbai soon.”
I said, ‘Yes, of course. Tell me, did you show this drawing to your mother”?
“Oh yes, I did.”
I wondered how Reena had reacted. To my mind, Minnie had to be prepared to face the uncertain future that lay ahead. Perhaps she would need a therapist to help her accept living without her father.
Realizing that my thoughts had drifted away I brought myself back to pay attention to Minnie.
“But I will need a visa to come with you. You know Singapore is a different country and there are rules for allowing people from other countries to enter it. It takes a long time, a very long time,” I reasoned with her.
Judging by the legal notice for divorce sent by Ranjeet, there was no chance of reconciliation. Reena, I felt, was not the kind that would want any reconciliation.
It was most unfortunate that at this point in time another sad event occurred. It was Sputnik. For the last few days neither had he eaten nor had he been able to pass urine. The vet had diagnosed it as kidney failure.
I sat next to his basket, stroking him. He slowly climbed up onto my lap and snuggled up to me. That night, around midnight, my buddy left me.
The secretary of the building graciously allowed me to bury Sputnik in the open space adjoining the building. All the kids gathered around the tiny grave, some had flowers in their hands, others held garlands, biscuits, various mementos and handmade cards etc. With tearful eyes we bid goodbye to our adorable friend, Sputnik.
It’s all very well for the Old Man to say,’ Get on with your life,’ but how will I manage without any money? All I have right now are some FDs which Baba had gifted me. But they would hardly bring in any income.
And it is difficult to find a lawyer whose fees I can afford. Apart from this I will have to have to deal with malicious gossip from neighbours, relatives and friends.
Considering all the complications, it was most important to find a good divorce lawyer for Reena. Apart from all these issues, Minnie’s emotional and mental well being was of paramount importance.
I called the legal cell of my old work place. They recommended Anuradha Roy, a well known divorce lawyer.
To feel energized, I decided to go for a walk. I felt lost walking without Sputnik. On my way back I met Mrs. Mendes working in her garden. She greeted me warmly and enquired about Sputnik and was very sorry to hear about his passing away. She invited me for lunch on the following day and I gladly accepted her invitation. It struck me suddenly that Mrs. Mendes might be the very person who could help Reena find a job.
When I reached home I thought of having a chat with Reena. I would tell her about my meeting with Mrs. Mendes and also about my plan to approach her for help to find a good job for her in the school where Mrs. Mendes had contacts.
Just as I was opening my door, Minnie rushed in, holding her drawing, and hugged me.
‘Grampa, where were you? I came looking for you so many times. Look what I have drawn–Mumma, me, and you walking on the beach. Good, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it is. Let’s put it up on your board.’ (I had fixed a board in my living room to pin her drawings.)
Then she sat next to me talking about everything under the sun. While listening to her I was thinking of all the issues I wanted to discuss with Reena. And just then Reena came over looking for Minnie. I told Reena that I wanted to have a chat with her once Minnie had finished her lunch and was taking her afternoon nap.
A little later, Reena came. I showed her Minnie’s drawing. She stared at it for a long time and said, ‘My baby seems to have sensed the change in our lives. It’s very sad.’
I assumed the role of a parent, and before she could break into tears, said, “We need to move forward in life and be prepared to face whatever problems come our way.’
Assuming the role of a ‘professional,’ I said, ‘We have to consult a lawyer. We can appoint Anuradha Roy, who, I have been told, is a very good divorce attorney.’ Before she could interrupt, I said, ‘We need to find some occupation for you, maybe you could go back to teaching. In the interim period you will need money which I’ll loan you. Luckily I am meeting Mrs. Mendes, who knows you right from your primary school days, tomorrow. She has now retired, and is on the advisory panels of all the branches of her previous school. I will tell her that you need a teacher’s job to support yourself as your husband has planned to divorce you.
Reena was pleased and happy that I had thought of a plan so that she would get a regular income. Her expression showed that she was very grateful to me.
I was happy that the Old man had taken upon himself to suggest plans for my future so that I would be financially independent and be able to give my daughter a good life. At the same time I was not sure that I should borrow money from the Old man whom I had only known for a brief time.
Nevertheless, I intuitively felt I could trust him, and decided to go with his plan of action.
Mrs. Mendes served a sumptuous lunch with chilled beer. We spent a pleasant time over the meal. After lunch I broached the subject of a teaching job for Reena in St. Teresa’s.
While Mr. Mendes and I cleared the table, that kind-hearted lady started making phone calls to her contacts to enquire about a vacancy for a teacher’s job.
After half an hour she joined us looking pleased. ‘I have found a job as a science teacher in one of the branch of St. Teresa’s. Though Reena will have to travel some distance, this job will pay her well.’
I was very pleased to hear that a job had been found for me. At the same time, I was worried about leaving Minnie alone with Shantabai for so many hours. I would have to think of someone to take care of her while I was away.
The Old man was very kindly driving me to the school for my interview with the principal. While he was driving I did not want to discuss the issues that were worrying me. Nevertheless I felt confident that he would find a solution for these problems as well.
It took us nearly thirty minutes to reach the school. The interview with the principal went off well. I was told that the school timings were from 9 am to 5 pm. As the distance from my home to the school was six kilometers, I realized I would have to use my scooty, and it would have to be overhauled.
Since I had to make various arrangements before joining work I asked the principal to allow me to join three days later. I requested the old Man to keep an eye on Minnie while I was at work, and help her with her lessons in the afternoons. Shantabai too would be reassured by his presence.
On our way back from the school we stopped by to thank Mrs. Mendes for introducing me to the principal and to tell her that I had got the teaching job.
When we reached home the Old man invited us, including Shantabai for a ‘surprise’ lunch.
The three days passed very fast….. and I was ready at eight in the morning to leave for school on my scooty. The Old man was downstairs to wish me well. I was touched by his presence and bent down to touch his feet to seek his blessings. Affectionately he put his hand on my head and said in a quavering voice, ‘Success be with you.’
After Reena left I returned home. As Minnie had to go to school I went to Reena’s apartment to check whether she was ready to leave for school.
Shantabai had taken care of that. Minnie was bathed, dressed in her school uniform and ready for breakfast. I had prepared breakfast for Minnie consisting of a bowlful of oats with dry fruit, omelette, buttered toast and a mug of Horlicks. I also packed Minnie’s snack-box with peanut butter sandwiches and a banana.
Shantabai reached Minnie to the school bus.
I carried on with my daily activities. I wonder how Reena was doing as I waited for Minnie to return from school.