Monday, November 22, 2004


“Did that boyfriend of hers come?” he asks his wife quietly.
Sitara’s brow furrows and her mother hushes her husband urgently. A light flashes in his pocket. It is his cellphone trying to tell him he has a call. The number is familiar and a call that he must take. She nods to him in understanding and watches him leave the room, closing the door behind him with a soft click. Sitara’s hand is still warm with fever. Her mother strokes the small hand and her heated forehead. She hopes Viren will not spring a surprise on them and suddenly show up. Of course part of her wants him to display the strength of character to stand against what she ordered him to do because he loves Sitara and understands that just now she needs to be surrounded with all the tenderness possible. She knows he won’t but she wants desperately to be proved wrong. She doesn’t want Sitara to wake up to heartbreak; she doesn’t want to have to face the reality that she made such a disastrous mistake when evaluating Viren. She looks up at the clock on the wall. Its hands move with slow decisiveness. He isn’t coming. This is going to be her cross to bear forever.

Her husband had never liked Viren but she had and she had her reasons for her approval. The mother in her had noticed how Sitara had changed. Her little girl suddenly turned into a woman. She became more dignified. She was taking more care over her appearance. She started wearing kohl in her eyes and gold earrings. She smiled to herself when she didn’t know her mother could see her. One evening, when mother and daughter sat in the garden nursing cups of tea, she told her mother that it was nice to feel cherished by the outside world.
“It feels warm, do you know what I mean?” Sitara had said, gesticulating aimlessly as the words refused to take on the weight of meaning that they wished them to. “Just to know that you being there makes a difference to someone’s life. It just suddenly makes you feel less of a cog, do you know what I mean?”
She had nodded. She met Viren about two weeks after that conversation and then she understood perfectly what Sitara had meant. There was a vulnerability in him that she sensed the moment she met him. He was so desperately eager for her approval. And he looked at Sitara with a kind of hunger that had enough force in it to feel like something starkly physical. It was in his smile as he watched her bring a glass of water for him. It was in his eyes as they followed her every movement. She saw it clearly: Viren needed her daughter tremendously. He was overpoweringly in love with her. Her mother’s heart exulted at this because she thought he would understand her. Being an artist, he would be sensitive to her needs and her softness. He promised her that he would make her happy, no matter what it took.
Times were hard and Sitara’s mother knew this. It was difficult to blend in and belong to a social group. There were demands made and there were expectations that she didn’t want Sitara fulfilling. She didn’t want to see her daughter smoking at the corner of a street like she had seen her friend’s daughter. She didn’t want her daughter going astray. Viren appeared and he seemed perfect because here was somebody who would give her confidence and make her feel like she belonged, but the fact that he was older and more conservative than the bohemian youth all around, Sitara would not be crowded with all the negativity of her peer group. It seemed to all fall into place perfectly in Sitara’s mother’s mind.

She should have realised that there was something askew in the little world she was putting together in her mind when her husband frowned while changing on the night he met Viren for the first time. She had thought he was feeling unwell or he had a headache.
“Is something wrong?” she asked him when she saw the grimace. “Are you feeling alright?”
“I’m fine,” he replied and went on to unbutton his shirt.
“You don’t look like you’re fine.”
“You’ve obviously met this Viren boy before,” he asked her with his characteristic directness.
“Yes,” she replied. He had asked her so sharply that she had almost stammered. “Why?”
He said nothing for a few moments. She had thought he would say nothing but then he said, turning his back to her as he found the soft, cotton t-shirt he liked to sleep in, “I don’t like him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t like him,” he repeated. “There’s something that isn’t genuine about him. He’s too eager to please. It’s as though he’ll bend any way you want him to just to please you.”
“But of course,” she had laughed. “He is seeing you as his girlfriend’s daughter. Of course he will be eager to please you!”
“Not to this extent,” her husband had replied doggedly. “It’s almost as though he is setting up a screen so that we don’t know what he’s actually like and we see only the parts that bend and nod according to our will.”
“I think you’re being a little too harsh,” she had replied. “In fact, I think you’re behaving like the classic, overbearing father. No one is good enough for your daughter, but she is growing up now. You will have to accept a lot of things and take my advice: don’t stand as an obstacle. Stay on her side.”
“That’s precisely what I’m trying to do.”
That night Sitara’s mother had shaken her head in mock despair and they had gone to sleep laughing about how intensely protective her husband is.

There are dark circles under Sia’s eyes. Her lips move as though she is saying something. They are dry and seem chalky. Sia’s mother finds a jug of water and dabs her daugter’s lips with the water. The water is sucked in by her dry lips immediately. The child shakes her head weakly and her eyebrows furrow. A small whimper escapes the chapped lips. Tears fill her mother’s eyes. She is suddenly assailed with the feeling that this is all her fault.

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