“Hi, Raj! Shall I tell you something?” my wife addressed me coyly for the umpteenth time this week. She would call me Raj whenever she was in the pleasantest of moods. She had more than 108 names for me- one each for the semblance of my face, hairstyle, gait, wearing of spectacles, moustache and other idiosyncrasies with somebody or the other. Over years, I got used to her and learnt to gauge her mood by the nickname she called me with. When she called me Raj, I was sure she was going to take me by surprise.
“Why not honey!” I replied in tune with her emotional upsurges and calling her, in turn, with parallel names. When I analyzed my behavior later, I wondered how playfulness has its own pleasant fallouts.
“It was four years since I wasn’t using any contraceptives as per our understanding. It’s of no use. Last month when I had been to Raipur, I had a thorough check-up by my sister. It was her opinion that there was nothing wrong with me. Well, I don’t want you to undergo that ‘sperm-count’ test. I know it hurts your ego. Besides, I am not for the test myself. Then we have the option of adopting a child. Shall we one?”
I should have guessed it. Chinni, my wife, had a knack of doing things her way. First, she would throw in her decision as a proposal at the most convenient hour for discussion. Frankly, there wouldn’t be any discussion at all. At that hour only acceptance of proposals. If, by any chance, there was any discussion and there was a dissent and a suggestion of an alternative from me, she would put up a brave face for having accepted a viable suggestion even if it were against her will. Later she would subtly do the things the way she wanted. If the outcome were good, she would boast of, otherwise, she would take the convenient excuse of forgetfulness. I should have guessed when her visits to her father’s place had increased of late, more so after her widowed gynecologist sister had set up practice. The inveterate pessimist that I am, I was not without my doubts if she had really been using contraceptives as per our understanding of not begetting children too soon.
“Honey! We are just into the eighth year of our married life. I have seen couples begetting children in their forties. Can’t we wait for some more time?”
“Aren’t we on the wrong side of thirties already? If we wait longer, by the time you retire, our children wouldn’t be completing their education even. And for them to be placed comfortably in life we should give them allowance of two or three years after their studies. Above all, I am getting terribly bored with nothing to lay my hands on, other than TV. And it wouldn’t be nice to view TV without you beside me. I tried my hand at painting, reading literature, freelancing, social work and other sundry activities all these years. All our attention and discussions were turning ultimately to the children in our neighborhood. Instead of somebody milking our love for children, why can’t we adopt a child and direct all our affection. You know Johny, of late, you are getting fond of Pinkie- that chubby, blue-eyed cherub of our neighbors. I believe it was playing in your subconscious: that we may not beget children. Nevertheless, your wakeful consciousness is refusing it. Why don’t we reconcile to the fact and do the needful soon? Well, if god wills it, and I conceive at a later day, the adopted child would fill the breach. Bantu, my nephew was so attached to you this summer, you once said rather casually that it would be nice to adopt the child if my sister agreed. I just mooted this when my sister was examining me the other day if she had any objection in giving him to me for adoption. She gave no clue to her intentions, but I suppose she would give in sooner or later. That would only further her interest. After all, she needs a companion and can’t carry on with the encumbering memories of her late husband so long as the boy is with her.”
It seemed she had done her homework well and I had no reason left to counter.
* * *
Few days later when I had returned home late in the night, I saw lights burning in my house. I was wondering, since, my wife, practical and pragmatic that she was, had left for Raipur to convince her sister about Bantu only the day before. I hurried in only to find my wife looking lost and dejected.
“What Meena? What’s wrong? You came by return of post?”
“Johny, it’s not time for jokes. I went to my sister with lots of hope. I tried to do her a favor by shoving the burden of the child off her shoulders. No use. Some people wilfully embrace tragedies and live in the somber effect the give. Since he caught your attention, I was after Bantu. His features are so lovely and sharp. The chameleon eyes—alert and radiant- bright now and start in surprise next moment; his unending zeal to know about things, his enticing uninhibited laughter endearing him to everybody. It was as if he were before my very eyes. But all hope was lost. We can’t get him.” She was so wan and restless. Words flowed through her mouth like paper calendared through press.
“Come on Waheeda! Cheer up! We haven’t come to the end of the road, after all! Nature’s quarry never gets empty. You can always find what you look for somewhere. If you are serious about adopting a child, let’s go to Prema Samajam and choose one.
“You mean it really, Dev? You think just as I do, or, knowing my mind, you are coming around only to please, me?”
“No darling! A compromise is not a favor that one does to his spouse. It is a tacit understanding like marriage. So long as we are in it, let people choose whatever way they like to call our behavior, but we live for each other’s pleasure- for mutual pleasure. If love is the spice of togetherness, delighting in it is the essence of it. Life lies in living and not mere existing. I cherish the moments of your pleasure with children.”
* * *
We had our appointment at four in the evening. The Manager, an enthusiastic nun, her name Nirmala Mary glittering on the brass name plate, had cordially received us, and offered chairs opposite to her. We got to the business straight, expressed our intention of watching children at play, and then choose. We know children stiffen in the presence of elders, teachers and strangers and particularly, when they knew they were being watched. When we made our choice, she opened a drawer and pulled out the dossiers of the two children.
“This is Anita,” she began reading out from the papers, “seven years old. Her mother abandoned her in the hospital itself after delivery. She is brilliant, good at sports and household chores, learns things rather quickly but slow in reproducing. A southpaw, she can’t write legibly, had a mild attack of polio affecting her left leg distorting her walk but one can’t easily notice it since she deftly covers it up in her gait.
“This is Dabbu, an eight year old precocious child. His mother was in her teens when she gave him birth in a star hospital. She was from a neighboring state. Her parents brought her in the last stages of her pregnancy, paid up all and sundry for the cover up and quietly took her back leaving the child under our charge…”
She then turned to my wife and said, “Madam! You don’t mind my saying this to you because it’s my duty. It is our experience that some childless couples are enthusiastic about adopting a child. That option was more out of compulsions of social status or other compelling imperatives rather than any real love for somebody’s children. After the initial euphoria subsides and they get used to the child, more often than ever, the child becomes a legitimized slave in the house- with the uncertainty of his future looming large before him. Sometimes, we even noticed them without any bequest- thus leaving the child as destitute as he was born. Moreover, there were many cases of child abuse in every conceivable way. Once under my charge, these children are mine. I long to place them comfortably in a home, if I can help it. Don’t adopt a child out of pity. Forget about his parentage; forget about your coming here. The moment you choose him, the child is no longer a destitute.
To begin with, the child takes time to adapt to the new environment. He may anger you, ill treat you, play pranks and do everything within his creative abilities to annoy, tease, and torment you- just to get back here. They are so used to this place you know! But do you have the patience to stand all this without grumble? Without regrets?
“Then again, you start to flood the child with favors unaccustomed to him. He will not be in a position to understand your enthusiasm for him. You get disheartened when the child’s response is not commensurate with your attention. You start feeling a sort of alienation from the child. Believe me, to all your favors, presents and affections heaped upon, he should get accustomed to by and by and not overwhelmed. Those things have no more value than that of a new toy that he plays with till he gets weary of and then throws it out. All they look for ultimately from you, is a caressing hand that lulls them to sleep without fear and a person who can father the child.
“It is a test of patience and endurance, let me tell you. Don’t be ever under the impression that you are doing the child a favor. No. It’s only the other way round. The child is subjecting himself to your fancies and outbursts, which he is least obliged to. However, if you choose these children conscientiously, be sure, limitless pleasure awaits you. A child adjusts to his surroundings sooner than a seed to its seminal bed. Cure them with love, they cure your angst. These two children are assets to any home that is fortunate to adopt them. It is my duty to see these precious stones imbedded properly to give a look of jewels. If it is for fancy or whim you came here, forget about them. They are not for you.”
As we passed out of the gates of Prema Samajam with Anita and Dabbu, I feel I saw for sure, a film in the eyes of Miss Nirmala Mary, which she was fighting bravely to withhold. As a parting shot, with her voice getting husky she said, “If for any reason you are not satisfied with the children’s behavior, or any one of them, for God’s sake, don’t drive them out of your home. Come to me and hand over the child back. God bless you.”
* * *
Some thirty years might have passed since.
My wife and I were passing through the same gates to meet the manager. The same Miss Nirmala Mary was there with whom we were in touch for so many years but for the last few. This time we were going on a different purpose. Last time when we came here, we came by a vehicle. But today, my wife and I held each other by hand. While age had become a burden and spectacles spelt our narrowed vision, we did not lose strength of our will. Seeing us, she rose from her seat and seated us in the chairs. A young couple was sitting opposite to her whom she was talking to when we entered, and another young man in waiting to her left.
As she continued from where she had left off, we heard a recap of what we ourselves had heard some thirty years ago. Miss Mary was as enthusiastic, educative and passionate as she was then. Time could not dent her passion for people. She called out for her assistant and asked him to show the children to the couple.
Turning to us, and having known the purpose we had come in, she pulled out two forms for us to fill up and said, ‘you seem to me like two children running away from home. I don’t mind admitting you in the old age home. I would like to hear about you. But first, let me hear this young man waiting here for quite sometime.”
She turned to him and said, “You see, my son, just because your wife couldn’t put up with your mother, you can’t join your mother here. If all children want to rid of their old parents like you, where is the room for all of them?”
“What can I do? She would always poke her nose in affairs that do not concern her. She can’t see- yet she wants to know what is happening around the world reported in papers and on TV. She pesters you till you inform her to the minutest detail. She wants to know about politics; why my wife had purchased a costly new sari when her father and brother had presented her one only few days before. She says she is not interested in others’ affairs but leaves nobody. She pesters me for money. I can’t understand why she needs hundred rupees a month when she is provided with everything at home. She wouldn’t listen and makes it an issue before all my relatives…”
The stream of complaints was endless. Some of them sounded very familiar. It looked as though my own child was complaining about us to her.
She then intervened and asked, “You recall your childhood now?”
“Can you distinctly remember certain events?”
“Say, as a child your pestering your father or mother with questions like ‘what is this?’ or ‘what is that’ every time you saw something new and attractive.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Then, haven’t you asked them for money as a school going child or as a college going boy?”
“I did, because I needed some pocket money.”
“What for? Were you not getting your boarding and lodging at home?”
“To buy chocolates, sweetmeats or to go to a movie with friends.”
“Did they not comply with your requests?”
“They did. But as I child I was denied more than given.”
“Just as a student you needed some pocket money; your old mother also needs some pocket money. It’s worthy of you to have been providing your mother with everything. It might just be your father had not left anything on her name. It boosts her ego when her grand children hail with pleasure receiving something from her to eat or play with, notwithstanding your having provided them everything as a parent. A child has a right to nature’s assets.
“May be she wants to make a trip to a nearby pilgrim centre with her grand children; may be she wants to put a rupee or two in the Hundi at a temple; or wants to throw alms to a beggar. There are a host of petty needs you can ever think of that she might need tending to. Where can she look up to other than you? If your wife had been cooperative, she might not have had any complaints. Did you ever check up that front? It’s nice to love one’s wife and children. You must love your parents as well. Your responsibility doesn’t cease with just feeding them. Be compassionate. Just as there is unaccountable child labor in this country, there is unaccountable senile labor – with the old parents directing all their energies in guarding homes, filling the breach of domestic servants, particularly in urban areas, attending on the children and many more. All this they do ungrudgingly if you treat them with love than feeling them a burden or responsibility.’
She was going on.
Chinni and I looked into at each other’s eyes. Years of togetherness builds up some extra-sensory perceptions. We got up together.
“I am sorry to detain you for long. Bear with me. I will be through in a minute…” said Miss Mary.
“No, Miss Mary! Please carry on. We had the second lesson of our lives from you today. We prefer to get back home. Thank you.”
Without a second thought, we walked out of the gate with great satisfaction… for the second time.