She willed herself to not check her phone to see if he had replied. It had been about three days now. She hated that she was constantly checking his 'last seen at' status and yes, he had logged in just five minutes ago. Yet she couldn't stop herself. This sinking feeling to find absolutely no communication from him was becoming unbearable, almost torturous.
And then, just as she sat on her chair, her phone vibrated. With her heart thudding in her ear, she unlocked her phone and stared at the screen. Finally! It was his message.
But when she opened it and read it, she nearly stopped breathing. She didn't know if he was joking. What was this?
‘Youngest VP in the history of the company :)’, read the message. There was a picture of Aman, shaking hands with someone, on a stage.
Annoyed with his carefree attitude after being out of touch for three days, she was about to call him when her phone vibrated yet again.
‘Arrived late into the city. Got lost on way back from company retreat. Just made it in time for the flight home. Call you when I land. Switching off now. Love!’
At last Amrita heaved a sigh of relief.
She had never understood this typically male personality trait. She recalled the time Aman had been in college. There was no schedule to his activities. When asked, he would give vague answers. Men had this tendency to forget that plans needed to be communicated in advance. They just couldn’t be bothered with it.
Ritu, on the other hand, had always been particular that Amrita was aware of her whereabouts. She would be mindful to call home and let her mother know if she was going to be late.
With her mind finally at ease upon receiving Aman’s message, Amrita got up to make some tea. She sent up a silent prayer of thanks for Aman’s success. He was a dedicated, hardworking young man and she was immensely proud of him.
Just as she sat down at the granite topped dining table, Raghav walked in from his upstairs apartment.
“Congratulations Amrita! When is the party?”
Amrita grinned as she offered him a cup.
“Of course, my son wouldn’t wait a precious second in sharing the good news with his favourite uncle.”
“His only uncle,” Raghav corrected her as they both burst out laughing.
“He does seem to have your traits.” Amrita teased her younger brother.
“Yes, such a fine young man he has grown into,” he acknowledged, admiring Aman’s picture on his phone with a smug smile.
“You spoil him too much.” Amrita admonished him. “That boy has had me insanely worried for the last three days with not even as little as a message.”
"Oh come on Amrita, I’ve told you many times not to worry so much. He can take care of himself. You’ve taught him w. . ." The sentence was left incomplete because Raghav was spluttering his tea all over the table and himself.
Amrita ran to grab a clean kitchen towel and a glass of water. She returned to find Raghav staring straight at her, with a panicked expression on his face.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” She probed.
Raghav thrust the phone in front of her, open to the latest image of Aman. Unclear as to what he meant, Amrita looked enquiringly at Raghav. He enlarged the image and held the phone up once again. She tried looking at the picture closely and was about to turn away when someone in the background caught her eye.
She adjusted her glasses and gasped. Raghav, though calm, was massaging his left temple.
“It’s him. It really is him.” Her voice was a whisper.
Raghav turned the phone towards himself. “Who would have thought we would see him again after all these years? When Aman mentioned the name of their new Group CEO hired in Indonesia, I chalked it up to a mere coincidence.”
Then, almost immediately, he asked, “Have you said anything to Aman yet?”
Amrita slapped her palm down on the table. “No. We decided then that the children are not to know.”
“Besides,” she added after a pause, “Aman and Ritu came into my life long after he was gone. They have nothing to do with him.”
Instantly, the room was enveloped in an unending silence.
In that moment, Amrita was transported 38 years back in time.
Amrita had met Vijay while working at a bank in Bombay. They would often meet socially, with a bunch of colleagues. Soon, they became good friends as they both had similar interests and shared a mutual outlook to life.
After a few months, they graduated to meetings over coffee, sometimes chaperoned by Amrita’s friend, Lata. A year later, Vijay expressed his desire to marry Amrita.
Amrita, convinced that he was just the kind of man she wanted to spend her life with, accepted his proposal.
Vijay’s parents sent a formal letter to Amrita’s father, seeking her hand in marriage for their son.
However Amrita’s father put his foot down. There was no way on earth that his daughter would marry outside their caste and that too, a South Indian boy. It was out of the question.
Amrita begged, pleaded, struggled to convince him that Vijay was far more suitable than any boy he could find. He was from a respectable family, well educated, with promising career prospects, and was brought up on the right values. Even her mother tried to reason with her husband.
Yet, her father was adamant. An out-of-caste marriage was impossible.
The debate carried on, looping extended family and distant relatives into the discussion. Everyone had their own nuggets of advice and florets of opinions to add to the dispute.
After months of heated mornings and scorching dinner table arguments, there came a point where her father asked her to choose between Vijay and him.
Amrita had been so stunned at his demand that she collapsed in shock. When she came to, she was running a high fever for which she had to take a few days off from work.
During this time, she kept to herself in her room, lost in her own world.
At the end of the week, she told her family she was resigning from the bank. Vijay would no longer be a factor in her life.
The family packed up and moved back to their ancestral home in Delhi.
Over the next few years, Amrita’s parents tried their best to get her married. Her father found a suitable boy every few months. Yet, Amrita refused each time. She believed she had had enough love only for Vijay and she couldn’t love anyone else.
Amrita was no longer the girl she had once been. Gone was the bright spark in her eyes or the spring in her step. Her soul, that had once been light as a feather, seemed to have been weighed down by lead, chained to the bottom of the sea floor.
She kept herself busy with work, spending more and more of her personal time alone. Soon she advanced in her career and was earning a respectable income.
At some point in her life, Amrita felt she needed something more. She had begun feeling incomplete as a woman. So the day Amrita turned 30, she announced her decision to adopt a child.
Once again, her father threw a fit. A young, unmarried girl; adopting a child – what would people say? The relatives would make life a living hell. Neighbours would make all sorts of accusations on her character. A woman’s place was in her husband’s home. A girl should be married before having children.
But this time Amrita was not going to back down. She had made up her mind. She was going to be a single mother and would raise a little girl by herself.
Strangely, her father was convinced fairly easily this time. Raghav always suspected it was because of their mother who beseeched him to give in, lest they lose their daughter altogether.
The adoption process had been extremely long and drawn out. The adoption agency conducted innumerable checks on her background, family and finances. There were interviews at every stage, including those with her family.
Amrita started losing hope when the adoption agency kept delaying by asking for more documents. They were probably wary of her ‘single’ status.
However, the sheer joy Amrita felt upon holding her child in her arms for the first time had made every moment worth the wait.
Ritu came home when she was two months old and she turned Amrita’s life 360 degrees. Motherhood brought back the vivacity that Amrita had lost.
Her father was most fond of Ritu, who loved nothing better than to sit on her grandfather’s lap and hear him tell her stories. Raghav Uncle, on the other hand, was her favourite person to dance with. She especially loved when he would hold her in his arms and spin her around, making her squeal in delight.
Ritu had, almost immediately, become the centre of their world.
A couple of years later, Raghav suggested that maybe Ritu now needed a sibling. She was growing up and having a sibling would be good for her.
So after some thought, Amrita once again applied for adoption and this time, brought three-week-old Aman home.
Amrita finally felt content with her life. Her children were her pride and joy.
As time passed, the family grew. Raghav got married and was soon a father to a set of twins – a boy and a girl.
Amrita’s father, who had mellowed with age, tried his best to keep up with his young grandchildren. However, age had caught up with him now and his body was failing him, even though his spirit was younger than ever.
One evening, he called Amrita to his bedside and apologised to her. He was sorry to have been unable to trust her choices back then, but was proud of the woman she had become. He asked for her forgiveness before falling asleep.
He must have had a premonition of what was to come because he passed away peacefully on that warm spring night.
His death came as a jolt to the family, one they had not been prepared for. They had still been grieving his loss when their mother followed him soon after.
Nevertheless, life carried on. Amrita and Raghav kept busy with their families.
Soon it was time for the next generation to be married. Amrita and Raghav, along with Raghav’s wife, were confident that their children would find the right partners.
Ritu has been married for six years now and has two children.
Aman was still waiting to find his soulmate.
The thought of Aman brought Amrita back to the present.
Raghav, with a hint of melancholy on his face, was leafing through the dusty old family album.
“I am happy how life turned out eventually,” he remarked. “Yet somehow, I do wish it had started out different. It’s a regret I will always carry with myself . . . If only I could have helped change Papa’s decision about Vijay.”
Amrita’s reply was prompt. “I don’t. I wouldn’t want to change a single thing.”
Raghav was taken aback by her words. “How can you say that? Don’t you ever wish you had been married to Vijay? Your life would have been so much better then.”
“What makes you think it isn’t so now? I have all of you,” she exclaimed. “Besides, I can’t for a moment imagine a life without Ritu and Aman. Maybe this was all meant to happen the way it did.”
Raghav was reflecting over a family picture, taken when Amrita had started working. Everyone had looked so happy and proud that day.
“Vijay wrote to me, many years later.” Amrita added, now speaking in a calm, measured tone.
“What? When? Why? You never told me.” Raghav frowned.
“It was about a year after Maa died.”
“What did he say?”
“He had reconnected with Lata at our old bank and had taken my contact details from her. She had generously updated him on the events of my life as well. He wanted to know if I would accept a second proposal from him. He was even willing to legally adopt Aman and Ritu.”
“And then? What was your response?”
“I politely declined.” Amrita replied.
Raghav gasped. “No! Why?”
“Why? You know why, Raghav. How could I marry him after all I had been through the first time?
“But Papa had apologised in the end? Surely that wasn’t your only reason,” he answered.
“Well, not entirely,” Amrita confessed.
“Then what?” questioned Raghav.
“Does it even matter now? So much time has gone by. What difference does it make?” Amrita got up and moved to the drawing room.
“That sounds a lot like an excuse, Amrita,” said Raghav, following behind.
Amrita sat down, silently fiddling with a pen.
“I know you loved him deeply. I have seen what Papa’s stubbornness did to you. When you had that second chance, how could you let it go?”
“I couldn’t do it.” Amrita suddenly burst into tears. “I felt I would be cheating my children.”
Raghav wrapped his arms around her. “They were smart kids. They would have understood,” he said.
Amrita was sobbing on Raghav’s shoulder.
He continued, “I understand having a father is different from having a father figure. They can never be the same. But have you ever thought what would happen if Aman were to find out from Vijay? They will be working together now and the truth does have funny ways of coming out of hiding.”
Amrita stood still for a moment, then sat back, pondering on her brother’s words.
Raghav continued. “If you ask me, I think you are a very lucky woman. You have just been handed a wild card. I suggest you make the most of it.”
“What do you mean?” Amrita was confused.
Raghav smiled. “You should tell Aman about Vijay. Ritu too. Let them decide how they feel about it. They are mature adults who have their mother’s best interest at heart. Maybe you could reconnect with Vijay. You might end up being good friends. Who knows…you could still marry him. It’s never too late. Aman tells me there is a rumour in their company that he is still very eligibly single.”
Amrita swatted his arm with a newspaper, but she was laughing now.
“My point is, don’t hold yourself back for what happened. There is a right time for everything. Sometimes you just have to be smart enough to identify it.”
Amrita was absorbing all this, while Raghav started collecting his things. “Don’t wait for another chance. There might not be any more left. Now go and get ready. We are going to pick up Aman at the airport. Let the surprises begin.”
In that moment, Amrita felt like the rusty old shackles were coming loose. She could finally unchain her secret and set it free.