“ Neethu! Walk slowly… stay together!” my voice was unusually loud. I had called out a couple of times earlier in an attempt to keep her, she seemed to ignore my instructions and continued forward in a fast pace. I struggled to catch up with my little one in tow. The evening rush was at its heights at the narrow street. Blaring horns, whizzing cars, beeping mobiles and noisy crowd added to the loud atmosphere around the highway. Pedestrians kept walking and dodging us as we moved forward. School children from various places joined the crowd chattering and laughing. Their freedom from the cooped indoors was audible. I had to raise my voice over the crowded din to get Neethu’s attention “ NEETHU … Stop!” My tone was firm. I was literally running to catch up. We closed in behind her and my presence in close quarters forced her to reduce speed grudgingly.
It was unusual for her to be unaware of her surroundings, especially at crowded and busy areas. She was always the responsible one, ensuring that her little sister was adhering to the rules for crossing and following her like a baby chick. Her responsible attitude made us proud of her, but today seemed different. Her sister was ignored and running along with me to keep pace.
As a family, social responsibility was a part and parcel of our life. The children often accompanied us on various social and charitable events. We inculcated this mindset. It was the first time we visited an Orphanage. Our discussions were often on the things that we could give the kids and what we should do. St. Mary’s Home for Orphans and Children was visible along our daily school route and always caught our attention. The uphill road cleared to a gate to the left. An old colonial structured building with a sloping roof stood afar, capturing the eye of anyone that passed through this path. A large compound with playing children and a grand old church that stood the test of time, eluded warmth and cheer. I never noticed any motor crash or screeching brakes in the area. Might be the cool and serene atmosphere enveloping the drivers despite their mindset, I imagined.
Neethu was always eager to try out new things. From a young age, the deep thinker in her found all types of activities that required her leadership to get things done well. Whether the campaigns for her 7th grade or the clean up for the community, her ability to organize, lead and act made her unique. As per her usual practice, she talked to her father in detail and with his permission organized a visit to the orphanage.
The Head Sister welcomed the visit. Reorganizing my hectic work schedule, I went along. I made it a point to accompany her on such visits. Her enthusiasm was infectious. We reached St. Mary’s with truck loads of gifts. The girls walked around and met the inmates like old friends. A little girl about her sister’s age caught our attention. “This is Elena” the sister said as she introduced the girl. The child smiled shyly with her gappy teeth. Her eyes twinkled in mirth and Neethu seemed instantly drawn to her. Throughout the visit, they were inseparable. I heard constant whispers and laughs. As the gifts were being distributed, Neethu insisted on a particularly special gift that we had packed, to be given to Elena. The more time we spent, the more the girls talked.
The children were gathered close to tea time signaling an end to our visit. Elena kept glancing back at Neethu as she left with her hand held securely by one of the helpers. As soon as she was out of sight, Neethu began to ask countless questions regarding Elena. The answers she received made her thoughtful.
“She is one of our brightest. Elena has a charm of her own.” The sister displayed her medals as she continued, “ The mother abandoned her as a newborn … at that time, the Rescue Cradle was just newly installed. Poor child…. No one leaves St. Mary’s without being touched by Elena’s charm. She has that quality about her…” Neethu couldn’t fathom how the mother could abandon Elena.
She repeatedly asked questions and was seeking for clarification. The answers did not satisfy her. I could read the questions and disbelief on her face. Tactfully, I looked at my watch and changed the topic. We had to leave early to get some shopping done on the way home. Reminding her of our schedule, I managed to divert her attention and walked out a few minutes before rush hour.
We sat down at the bench outside the Church compound with a visibly irritated little Naina seated to my left and a quite Neethu to my right. The brisk walk around the scenic area had ruffled the nature loving Naina. She hated being hurried around without being given a chance to gaze at the beauty around her. She frowned. Dark clouds were gathering above us and Neethu has opened her umbrella in anticipation of a downpour, as was her nature. The tilted umbrella shaded her face. It seemed like she was hiding her thoughts and herself from me.
The walk from the busy highway to the bench was automatic and almost mechanical. I didn’t notice anything in between. A lot of thoughts were churning in my head…the orphanage, Elena, Neethu’s expression and now the silence. The sun began to sink in the horizon. The usual evening reddish hue and its charm seemed to hide itself from the sky resembling Neethu’s face. The sound of a few falling rain drops touched the tree tops around us, it was time to move. I gathered the girls and began to run to our car parked in the nearby parking lot. It began to drizzle. While closing the umbrella and getting into the car, her face was distant. Without realizing, her eyes lazily searched for something she wished to see and unable to find, unsure of what it was. Neethu climbed in. Her mind, miles afar. Comfortably seated and buckling in, I watched her through the rear mirror.
The drive was quiet as I kept watching her through the mirror. There was a question in her thoughts. It was gathering momentum in the space I gave her to think without asking. The eminent downpour outside was short lived. I imagined Neethu’s dark mood to be the same. My thoughts meanwhile, moved to the shopping at hand. I slowed the car to a left lane. The signal turned red, I waited.
Neethu’s fingers traced a few words on the glass window with the rain drops that escaped the wind outside. The words seemed unsatisfactory to her mind. She hastily wiped them away. “ Chechi, can I draw on it?” Naina’s request received a nod and a quick exchange of place ensued even before Neethu reacted. Neethu took her diary from her backpack while settling on the other side. The diary was her father’s gift and a companion at all times. It was brown, leather bound with each page decorated with a different but colorful picture at the top. Her initial excitement on receiving the book was expressed by flipping through the pages with me in due attendance. I remembered between the flipping, a couple of pictures – the Spinx, a picture of the pyramids, etc.
I watched the mirror again. She went through the diary searching and flipping until she found something. Her pen jotted down a few words in quick moments and the book slammed shut. Naina’s artwork was still in process on the other side.
The green signal and blaring horn jolted me. HONK!! HONK!!
“Damn it! The signal just turned green! “I said as I looked at the mirror and raised my hands up gesturing “What!” Another honk and I was gunning the engine. Neethu quickly looked around and began to direct me as usual. She was always alert at such situations near the signals. I generally relied on her for location guidance. The commotion had everyone involved in my driving and the verbal bashing of an irritated bald head behind us, all in the safety of our sound proof car.
The signal diverted our attention and brought us back to our routine. Shopping was quick and as we were driving home, my eyes caught sight of her diary on the seat. I was curious. What was it? Her thoughts?
The routine at home was as usual…light cooking, dinner and slowly off to bed. The call at nine was prompt as usual. The hubby called in to check on our visit and tales. I managed to outline the interesting bits and promised the details for later. I wanted to discuss the ride home, but not before I had a chance to decipher her thoughts. The girls retired to bed without their usual bargain and banter for stories and time. Naina was asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow. Neethu yawned, tossed and turned a couple of times before she drifted off to some dream.
A quick check and few tasks later, everything for the next day was done and I was ready to retire. It was a long day. My bedside novel laid marked on the side table awaiting my attention, but I was in no mood to read. My mind wandered. I checked on the girls and took a peek at the diary. I walked to my room thinking of what it would be that was to be immortalized on these pages by Neethu. Every page had a comment or some thoughts. I laid down on the bed and searched for the exact page. After a few minutes, one picture and writing stood out. This was it! The Statue of Liberty stood bold on the page top and below one line alone.
“ The winds of Truth bare the Statue sometimes carrying Horror as her beacon”
Which wind has bared a truth for her? I was surprised at her thoughts. I re-winded the incidents one by one for today. They stopped short at Elena. Elena and her birth had brought the winds of realization, I assume.
The Good News was great news. Everything had fallen into place according to our plan. We had a little bundle arriving for Neethu after 4 years as scheduled. We were thrilled at the results being positive. Our discussion turned to her happiness at the new addition to our small family. We had always led her to believe that her request was vital for getting a new baby. Her bargaining with God filled a great majority of her bedtime prayers daily. We built the big picture with her being an integral part in the creation of a new sibling. Without her request or wish, no baby would be given to us. This led to the BIG Q “Who requested for me?” The answer was simple “Mummy, of course!” It made sense to her. Every child had someone who requested for it and it was not an easy task. You had to really pray hard and want it bad, only then would God grant it.
Neethu’s loneliness was a huge issue for us as we lived in a city due to our job constraints. Having moved from our home town, she had no friends her age and this led to us enrolling her for Pre School at the age of three. She was pampered and petted and never left to sleep or eat without the series of adventurous tale with her faithful sidekick “The Baby”. They were her favourite tales and having a baby brother or sister was a great dream for her. Our tales on the fun times had a positive effect on her. It was her belief that if she prayed well and I requested along with her, the Baby would come. We were positive that the news would be thrilling for her. We worried on how she would feel once the baby arrived. ‘Would she worry about the love being divided?’
Contrary to our apprehensions, our tales managed to inspire her and Naina became the Apple of her Eye. Neethu assumed responsibility in every aspect of her sister’s care and surprised everyone with her attitude and dedication. This was her baby. Sibling rivalry and jealousy were just mere words. We marveled at how well we had guided her and took secretly great pride in our parenting skills. She refused to let anyone take care of her sister. She welcomed every baby that she saw during that period with the same belief, an ardent request was answered. Today’s visit might have shook this belief.
The Elena’s of the world were born without a request. They come to parents who do not need them. It may have conflicted with her belief. Had she thought of such things before, I wondered. It was an old tale. Nothing presented itself as an opportunity to assess or clarify this, as a fact or tale. Did she keep this belief until today? I wondered. Anyway, today might have been a revelation for her; I believe this was the only way to explain it.
I thought to myself of the childhood tales that I had heard which may have met reality. The truth might have erased and faded the questions time to time without a voice to it. With this thought, I slowly sunk into the pool of dreams.