By Ameya Bondre
Note: The featured story is excerpted from the author’s debut collection of short stories, Afsaane.
Froth clung to the oval mouth of the purple coffee stirrer as she took it out of the cup. Placed on a barren brown table-top, the bubbles, breathless and delicate, held on to each other. Not one wanted to venture alone into unknown territory. Paper napkins lay around, crumpled and abandoned. Empty cups looked back at us.
Nisha took the last few sips while caressing the cradle. The cradle sat on the chair to her left. The chair had been pushed back to make space. The cradle was a little bulky with a sky blue arch and squatted legs curving back to join by a horizontal orange panel. Screws fixed all its joints. It was an uncomplicated piece.
But, never so simple for her. She scanned the misty window on her right. She hunted for any clues. It was pouring outside. She was transfixed. Not a word had been spoken since we had settled in. No eye-contact. Fifteen long minutes. The waitress revisited our table and asked pointedly if we wanted anything more. Nisha shook her head with a blank face and turned back to the window.
I didn’t feel like eating or drinking. There was so much to digest already. How many more questions had to be answered? I didn’t peep into the cradle but envied the child it held, his motionless sleep, his chest rising and falling in a perfect rhythm. Did the rain gods have any concept of timing? I wanted to step out and drive. To take Nisha home was urgent. The clutter in our bedroom would dissolve her empty stares.
A sudden burst of laughter from a bunch of college kids sitting at the next table stirred him a little. He fidgeted, made a few groans. She looked into the cradle, swayed it a little. He didn’t wake up.
The kids stopped chattering. They had taken shelter in this café, thanks to the sudden downpour, to chat for a while. As we had, minutes after we had stepped out of the Centre, the place I wanted to be most further away from.
“I think we should go home.” I said.
“No wait, it’s raining.” She stroked the sky blue arch. “Please, let’s move out,” I said.
“Look outside! He will wake up in the car.” “That’s alright. I am there,” I said.
“How? You will be driving.”
“Do you want to drive then?” She didn’t answer.
“Aniket, we have just got him. Do you realize that?”
“No. Because you are quiet. And when you don’t talk, I can’t think clearly.”
“Well, it’s you who thinks through decisions, don’t you?”
“Taking you along. Yeah?”
“And with very little time?” she asked. “That’s the system. We can’t help it.”
“I am ashamed. I don’t know why. I shouldn’t be. I should be loving.”
She didn’t speak for some time and rolled her fingers along the arch, as if feeling it all over again. “You know, some women after they deliver, feel low. In fact, many of them.”
“This—”, she stole a second to glance at his sleeping body, “this is not even that. This is something we have invited. I am scared.”
“Don’t say that. It’s our family.”
She went mute. It looked like the foggy window gave her company.
She had a point. We didn’t get much time or say in the matter. They told us that the process had been simplified, the rules had been changed. Parents uploaded documents into a centralized system. After matching their preferences, the system allowed the parents to see only one child in each round, and a choice had to be made within 48 hours. They had abolished the practice of ‘pick and choose’. Children are not commodities, they said. Parents must accept whoever they get. Just like normal biological parents do. It had all sounded fine. If we rejected the child they offered us, they would show us another child based on our preferences, after 90 days. Oh yes, they did not exclude preferences like age, state, and gender. Perhaps they could afford not to, as long as their registry had some 2000 children. They gave us three rounds. After the third round, we would have been pushed down a waiting list of 15000-odd parents if we hadn’t made up our minds. And so, we accepted. We wanted to fill the void.
“What?” She looked at me.
“I love you. And I love Akshay. Stop thinking. For some time.”
“You are calm, aren’t you?”
I sighed. “I think so. I love him.”
“I know. You’ve said it ever since you saw his profile.” “Yes.”
“Which I cannot ever fully understand. Is it instinctive? I mean, it should be,” she chuckled. “But, doesn’t it take… time, for you?”
“Are you happy?” I asked her for the millionth time.
“Yeah,” she responded with the millionth meek vigorous nod of her face, as though to emphasize. “But aren’t you worried?”
“I have stopped worrying.” “Don’t lie to me.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“It’s easy for you. I am the one who will be looking after him all day,” she said.
“I will too, when I come home from work.” “You will be exhausted.”
“I will be eager. To be with you both.” “When he sleeps.”
“I won’t be so late. I promise.” She gave a purse-lipped smile.
“When you resume work, at a later point, you will feel better,” I said.
“It’s not about work! I don’t intend to resume. I’m in no frame of mind to work.”
“Okay.” I paused for a bit. “We have a new maid. You chose her. You are content with her. She will help you.”
“I wish your mother would.” She closed her eyes and inhaled. “I – I am sorry.”
“Give her time. This is a big shift for her.” “And for me.”
“You know what you don’t get? It’s not the specifics. The nappies, the tantrums, the playing, the feeding, the lack of sleep. It’s not about that.”
“What is it then?”
“Something more. I want to feel the same as your mother felt, or mine, when they had us. I want to experience the same things. When I look at him, I feel I care. But not strongly enough. I love him. But, it, does not overpower me.”
“Give it time.”
“And to deal with this all alone? I am the caretaker. I am the one at home. With… with a stranger. With no support from your parents. And, hardly any from mine.”
Her voice cracked a bit, as if bearing the weight of her words. Before it could fragment any further, I withheld a reply. A reply from my end was needless. There was no way I was going to elaborate on her point of being unsupported and dissect the topic and ultimately let her cry. Both of our parents had become reticent. As if they had given up. Let the kids decide whoever they want to bring home. I rewound to the question of whether we had little time to take this decision – perhaps the reason for her turmoil.
“I know this has been fast. This will feel abrupt. We got three chances and we decided during the third. It feels outrageous. I know.”
“Stop reminding me of that, please.”
“Biological parents just get one chance, Nisha. That’s what I’m trying to say.”
“Are you seriously comparing? You just said it. They are biological. That takes care of everything. Including their fears.”
“No. People fail. They make mistakes all the time. Ask parents of one-year-olds.”
“It’s different! They have several months to process their emotions about the new arrival. They get those several months. It’s internal, for them. I don’t believe the way you are trying to reason this out.”
“Okay, I will stop.”
“Besides, the family helps them. Overwhelmingly.” “Agreed.”
The pouring reduced to a drizzle. What a relief! Now I could take them home. I insisted. She relented. Anyway, she was sick of my attempts to console. I let it be. But to take her home was needed. At least, she could be in a different place – and ponder, think, analyse and build castles about our situation, at least, in a different room.
A fifteen-minute drive, but I chauffeured them gently. Akshay didn’t wake up. I wished he would sleep all day. Or at least for the next few hours.
We reached home, a home waiting for us with a hundred things to be done. We were just back, with our child, fighting the odds we could.
It was yesterday, in the evening. I had to visit my mother, who stayed about twenty minutes away. A lot had to be said there. A lot had to be heard there, which was imposing and unwilling. Nisha knew. She was prepping Akshay’s room, moving around, tidying things to ensure it was spick and span. She didn’t care that the room would gather some dust by tomorrow morning, hours before Akshay’s arrival, because she would clean it again to her satisfaction. I went near her, almost to stop her, and turned her around.
“What?” she asked, her eyes bore into mine, almost closing their lids. I kissed her. She got still for a moment, then let her eyes open. She mumbled, “I am okay, Aniket.” She kept her head low.
“You sure?” I tried to look into those eyes.
“Yes, you can leave me alone. In fact, it’s better you do.” “Why?” I rested my forehead on hers. She sighed.
“I want your conversation with them to go well,” she said.
“That’s a tall order!” I chuckled.
“It’s worth trying. Go… and come back soon.” “Should we call the maid now?”
“No, in the evening. I don’t want anyone here. Just me and his room. He… will come tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” I looked at the empty cradle. “Okay. Bye. Call me if you need anything.”
“No, I won’t. I don’t want to interrupt your conversation with them.”
Dad opened the door. He smiled and hugged me. The gesture was devoid of any celebratory feeling. But I sensed vigour, at least. He was seventy, a year older than my mother. Any ounce of vigour was useful. I could extract something positive, something naïve, something silly and hopeful out of it! Celebrations could wait.
I had barely taken a seat at the dining table when Mom pounced: “Who is he?”
“No, tell me, who is he?” “I don’t know.”
“Do we know his community, his birthplace?” “No.”
“Do we know the kind of parents he had? Their education? Their values?”
“Didn’t you ask about his origins?”
“They don’t reveal such things. It’s not allowed.” “Why?”
“It’s not legal.”
“Oh, is it?” she smirked.
“It works both ways. We are the legal parents now. His real parents can’t… just take him away from us.”
“You are foster parents. Till the court ruling. Don’t forget that.”
“Okay. So, we will become his legal parents in a year’s time. Happy?”
“When he grows up, he will have legal rights to meet his real parents,” she said.
“Let him meet them. Besides, not all children want to do that, just for your information!”
“What if he wants to? What will happen then?”
“I don’t know. By asking me again and again, for the tenth time, you think you will get a better answer?”
“Aren’t you scared about it?”
“Of course, since you keep reminding me.”
“Do you want to share your child with anyone else, even emotionally?”
“No. Can I just assume, for now, that he won’t want to meet them?”
She shook her head. “I don’t feel he is ours. Yes, we saw the pictures. You told us everything. But now that he’s home, I feel strange. I don’t understand what was the harm in trying IVF again.”
“Please think about us. She had an ectopic pregnancy. Twice. We went through multiple IVFs. It only made us hopeless.”
“I told you about surrogacy.”
“And you know we wouldn’t do that. It’s a transaction.” “Transaction?”
“Yes. We were both utterly uncomfortable with that idea.”
“How is adoption not a transaction? You paid money.”
“Akshay was abandoned. Left to the mercy of fate and strangers. For a Centre to care for him. For reasons that he doesn’t know and perhaps will never know. But he has us now. Now, do you understand why we are more comfortable?”
“He is someone else’s. Just doesn’t feel ours. He is from another family. Another culture. Another household. Another pregnancy. Another mental make-up.”
“So is Nisha. But you claim that she is your daughter—”
“Aniket. No,” Dad interrupted. Mom folded her hands and furrowed her brow. I didn’t feel like looking at either of them.
“He could turn out to be a different person, regardless of your nurturing,” she said.
“What about us? Nisha? Have we turned out to be as expected, or different?”
“Don’t argue with your mother, Aniket. And don’t divert the topic,” Dad snapped.
“I am not – how have I turned out to be, tell me? Am I a mature adult? I think I have harassed you enough. Especially all these years after marriage. No grandchildren! Is that kind of stress, something you expected from me when I was born?”
Mom took a deep breath and replied, “She had ectopic. You both had failed IVFs. You didn’t want surrogacy. You both liked this child. But you convinced her. You registered for this process. One thing led to the other. She took it as it came. And now, he’s home! I am sure she is in panic mode—”
“So, what are you getting at?”
“Do you see what you have done? It was not a complete decision.”
“We have waited for five years. I am thirty-five. She is thirty-three. Akshay is seven months old. I am happy that if not from the beginning, we at least have him now. We feel complete. At least I do.”
“And Nisha doesn’t?”
“I know what’s grappling her. She is anxious, scared, confused and even ashamed. But she doesn’t want to change anything of this.”
“The incompatibility between you both and him – as a separate individual, have you thought of that?”
“That’s our responsibility. My responsibility. He is my son—”
“Who is seven months old. Time will fly. He will go to pre-school. Children are smart! And not kind. What if someone tells him casually, what if it gets leaked to him, his identity, the concept of not being born to you? In a very inappropriate manner?”
“There are ways for parents to tell children, early. We will do that.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought of that yet.”
“How many times have you said so far, that you don’t know!” she said.
“Do what you want.”
“Well, at least you are right about one thing. Nisha is in panic mode. I must leave.”
My Dad intervened. “She just wanted to be honest with you. She had a lot to say and ask you.” He was in spokesperson mode. I smiled at him and walked towards the door. My mom sat where she was, staring into space, her brow still furrowed, her breathing heavy, her arms folded tight across her. She didn’t budge one bit. I left.
On the way home, I got stuck on a congested road. I peered at the children selling pirated novels at the traffic signal. I thought about their homes, if they had any, their people, their environment. I noted their restlessness, their curious smiles, their shabby clothes and their apparent ease with the total lack of security of their circumstances. Anyone could rob them of their money, give them drugs, or traffic them to another world. Walking and talking bodies, living on the edge. Looking at them, I felt a perverse sense of relief at my own situation. I didn’t know where that came from, that feeling. It was sick. Why should I feel relief? They were children! Why was I comparing them with my son? Wasn’t there anything else I could take out of their situation? Something hopeful? Positive? The signal turned green.
That… was yesterday. Could it be a bygone? Who knows.
We reached home and finished the hundred things we had to do – settling Akshay, who still had his eyes wrapped tight, and settling ourselves. I wanted to bury my head into a pillow. Or take a hot shower. Or have coffee. Or lock myself up. But there he was, the new member of our family, asleep and dreamy. The air-conditioner helped him. Nisha was shuttling nervously between the kitchen and the bedroom.
I took a chair and pulled one more in front of it. I patted it. “Come, sit…”
“Don’t tell me what happened last evening.” I kept mum.
“We avoided that topic, whatever your parents said yesterday—”
“And we will avoid it now.”
“We will have to face it, Nisha.” “Aniket?”
“Okay… Okay, I won’t”. I grabbed her elbow.
“Anyone…”, she smiled, “anyone can look at your face and make out what happened. What must have happened.” She caressed my head like I were a pup. I had always adored that gesture, to bits.
“Stop… don’t think about that.” I pulled her down on the chair. I held her hands and opened her palms.
“How are you?” she asked.
I couldn’t speak. Just nestled my cheek on her palms.
“Sometimes you confuse me more than a seven-month- old child can,” she blurted.
“He is a fine guy. Isn’t he?” “What happened to you?”
“Nothing. I am tired.” “And?”
“I don’t understand why we can’t take things one step at a time.”
“You can?” I asked.
“Yeah. I will have to. I will.” She said.
“I will walk with you.” I didn’t let my cheek leave her palms.
She hugged me and fondled my hair. I didn’t let go. I wanted her to shield me from all the noise, all the questions. She mothered me. I let her.
“I am scared too,” I whispered. “I know.”
“Lot of thoughts crowding my head.”
“No, there’s nothing. Look at me.” She kissed me.
“Tell me something…” It was my turn to question. “You still thinking as you were in the café?”
“Oops.” She got up all of a sudden. “What?”
“He is making sounds,” she said. The groans grew louder.
“Yeah, he is waking up.”
We went to the cradle parked next to the window. The drizzling had disappeared, but we hadn’t noticed. A strange unexpected sunshine seeped into the room.
Akshay was awake. Deep black eyes greeted us. I pulled down the blinds a little more to block the piercing sunlight. He recognized us. We had ensured that we had made the most of our first visit and the time we spent at the Centre that morning. He reached out with a small hand to touch my nose pointing at him. He barely stretched his hand. He smiled. He shifted his view and gazed at Nisha. He stared at her for a while and blinked. It looked like he pointed to her earring. He babbled a few aaaam’s and ummm’s. Nisha cooed at him. I could have gone on… looking at the two of them forever. His index finger was a reliable guide. She brought herself closer and he tapped Nisha on her chin, and tried to reach her cheek. He sensed something large and sky blue above his head. He looked up and tried to reach for the arch of his cradle. She lifted him a little. His hand, now outstretched, touched the arch. He laughed. He returned the favour by smiling at her. He groaned a little more. He fidgeted some more. Perhaps he was eager to free himself. Like us. He yawned a few times to shed any remnants of sleep. I lifted him out of the cradle and started talking, showing him his room, and opening the cabinet gently to reveal all his little toys—the trains, the planes, the ships, the cars, the robots and what not! He squealed in delight and tried to grab the objects. I sat on the floor, with him on my lap, and we explored the cabinet.
The phone rang. Nisha went to answer it. I watched her as I guided Akshay.
“Hello. Namaste, Mummyji.” I made to get up, but Nisha waved me down. She hinted me to stop.
“Yes.” She took a breath. “Yes. We all came some time back.” Nisha stared at me while talking to my mother. “We left the Centre but it started raining. So, we stopped for some time and… we got late.” I had no idea what the voice on the other side was saying. Nisha turned quieter by the minute. She listened with great attention. She became motionless, her eyes flung far at the open window. They almost stopped blinking. She looked at me, her eyes trying to convey a hundred words, nodding all the while. I searched her eyes for hints, even as she gestured to me to stay where I was. If only I could figure what she felt. She seemed to bear it, and take it all in. All that she heard. All that she was told. And whatever she could believe or disbelieve. Suddenly, her eyes welled up. I got flustered. But then she suppressed a smile and bit her lip. She nodded her head in agreement. She let out a suppressed laughter.
And, she said, “Tonight, tomorrow, whenever. We are waiting. Please do. You and Dad. We all want to meet you. Come as soon as possible!”
Ameya is a physician, public health researcher, and a début fiction writer! While his work has received honours from Johns Hopkins University, MIT and TEDx, and he has several research publications, it is creative writing that has been a constant companion over the years. He penned short stories on relationships, conflict, hope and acceptance, in the winter of 2017, to put them into ‘Afsaane’, his first book. ‘Afsaane’ released in January 2020 and got rave reviews; it has been featured in the Pune Mirror, Oxford Bookstore, Delhi Wire, Mumbai Live, and received a narration through BookMyShow.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.