The taxi come to a stop outside the entrance of the hotel – hotel Emerald, the name that had been recommended to him. He was quite new to the city, coming after a gap of almost two decades. He climbed the steps and walked up to the reception counter. The receptionist was young. Hardly twenty. Pretty. There was something vaguely familiar about her.
After the necessary formalities had been completed he went up to his room, took a bath and came down to the restaurant section for his breakfast. He preferred the bustle of the restaurant to the quiet of the room. From the table where he sat he could see the reception and of course the pretty receptionist. She certainly was attractive. She was now speaking to a young man- probably one of the not very infrequent visitors.
He said something to her and she, apparently greatly amused, threw back her head and laughed. There was something exceedingly familiar about this gesture and there flashed in his mind some little memory from the past. And suddenly he was quite sure. It must be. The city was the same. He wanted to go and ask her. But this would be, he thought, injudicious.
It was evening by the time he returned. The receptionist was still there and on a sudden impulse he went over to her desk.
'When are you off duty?’
She was surprised at this abrupt question.
“At six,” she said.
He looked at his watch. It was nearing six.
Would you care to have coffee with me?'
She looked at him. He could see she was sizing him up.
“It would greatly please me.”
“Thank you. I’ll be waiting at the restaurant.”
It was probably his gray hair that had won her consent. Obviously a man of over fifty wouldn’t try anything too funny. He didn’t have to wait long. As she came up to his table with a slight smile on her lips, he was sure. She sat down.
“I’m Raj – Raj Gupta.”
He offered her his hand.
She took it in a firm clasp. “Priya Narayan.”
“Narayan. That was her maiden name – Radhika Narayan.”
Soon they got talking. After the initial embarrassment she was at her ease.
She told him about herself. After her graduation she had done a course in Hotel Management and had joined Hotel Emerald six months back. She was staying at Mahim with her grandparents.
“And your parents?”
“They are dead.”
He was for a moment too shocked to say anything.
“I’m sorry ...I’m sorry,” he managed to blurt out.
Radhika dead. He was filled with an overwhelming sadness.
But was it really Radhika’s daughter sitting in front of him?
He had to be sure.
“Your mother, was her name Radhika by any chance?
“Yes. But how did you guess?”
“I knew her. It was quite some time back. She was a student at Hyderabad University. I was a lecturer there.”
“Was she your student?”
He was silent. How could he answer that question?
“No. We were in the same department. She was doing research under a colleague of mine.”
Why was he lying? He wasn’t sure himself.
“She got up. I should be going. Thanks for the coffee.”
“I’ll drop you.”
“It’s okay. You needn’t trouble. You must be tired.”
“No Priya, it’s the least I can do after detaining you.”
He returned at nine. He was in no mood for dinner. He sat down in front of the window gazing at the myriad stars. The hotel was facing the sea. The shimmering waters, the pale moonlight and his memories … It was the year 1970. He was then thirty three – an incorrigible bachelor – a lecturer at Hyderabad University. Radhika had come down from Bombay on scholarship for her Ph.D. He was to be her guide.
Three years passed by. Her thesis was nearing completion. It was June. She had come after spending the summer holidays in Bombay. She told him casually when they met that her engagement had taken place in the holidays. Her marriage was next month.
During these three years Raj had had ample scope to study Radhika.
She was not exactly beautiful in the conventional way. There was not a single feature on her face that would inspire poetry. At the most one would have called her pretty. But there was one quality that transcended all descriptions of beauty- her smile. It was devastating. She smiled not only with mouth but with her eyes too. There was a childlike innocence, a disarming quality about it that was mesmerizing. Her face habitually wore a solemn, slightly melancholic look and that made her smile all the more attractive.
One evening they were working in his department. It was quite late. They still had to finish off the last chapter of the thesis. Next week she was leaving for Bombay.
“Radhika why don’t you come down to my flat. We can complete the thesis today. You’ll still have one week for getting it typed. You can submit it before you leave.”
She agreed. At his flat they resumed their work and it was ten by the time they finished. With a sigh of relief she put the pen down and sank back, exhausted.
“We really had a marathon session today,” she said.
“We certainly did. We’ve been working since two,” he replied.
“O.K sir. I’ll be going now. The warden will kick up a fuss if she comes to know I came after lock-up.”
“I’ll walk down with you.”
She was staying at the ladies hostel, which was a kilometer away from his flat. As they walked side by side he couldn’t help being conscious of her proximity. She seemed to look even prettier in the moonlight. She, apparently quite oblivious of the feelings she was arousing in him, kept up a light banter. It was quiet, the pale moon emphasizing the stillness of the night, They decided to take a short cut. They soon came to a barbed-wire fence. He climbed on to the other side to help her. As he took her hand she tripped over the fence and fell straight into his arms…….
Raj was hardly aware of what possessed him. He lost track of everything.
He was kissing her soft lips. They were cold and unresponsive. Them slowly she began to respond. Her arms went around his neck pulling him down. Soon they were kissing with a fervor that threatened to cut down all restraints. He didn’t know how long they stood in each other's arms totally oblivious of everything else.
She softly broke free, gently pushing him away from her. Their eyes met for an instant and then she vanished into the dark night. He watched her form, clad in a yellow sari, threading its way in the darkness. He wanted to call out, say something, but speech was wiped from his lips. He didn’t know how long he stood there. He had no idea when or how he returned to his flat. He was in a daze. It all seemed a hazy dream.
Next morning he cursed himself. How could he have behaved so foolishly? What insane impulse had seized him to act with such impetuous disdain? Was it love, was it passion or was it a momentary madness that had gripped him?
He wanted to apologize to her for behaving like a love struck teenager, but he didn’t see her. Was she angry with him? Or was she too embarrassed to face him? For hadn’t her lips signified at least a momentary surrender to his passion? A more hopeful explanation was that she was busy getting her thesis typed.
It was Friday –the tenth of July. She was leaving tomorrow. He wanted to meet her one last time. He had tried contacting her and had even sent a message to her room but she wasn’t there.
It was evening, sitting by the window in his room he watched the setting sun. The bright yellow, the angry red, the purple streaks and finally the inky blackness. There was sometime depressing about the sunset today.
There was a soft knock. He opened the door. It was she. She looked ravishing. Clad in a blue saree, the blue of azure, which accentuated the redness of her lips, she reminded him of Wordsworth’s Phantom of delight.
“Are you going to just stand there gaping at me or are you going to ask me to come in,” she laughed making his heart beginning to thud.
“Oh yes! Come in. I ….I was surprised.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow. I’ve come to say good bye, Raj.”
This was the first time she had called him Raj. It had an intimacy that sent his blood racing.
She sat beside him on the sofa. Her proximity was unsetting.
“Radhika, I’m, sorry about what happened the other day. I couldn’t help it.”
She looked at him intently for a minute and smiled.
“Raj, you may be sorry but I’m not.”
It took few seconds for him to get the import of the remark. When he realized what she was trying to say he was confused.
“I ….I….” he could just stammer.
She laughed at his confusion.
“Oh Raj! Why do you think I’ve come today? This whole week I’ve been wrestling with my feelings. I’ve decided I want to be with you this evening.
I know this might shock you but I …….
He didn’t allow her to complete, he needed no explanation. He took her in his arms. As their lips kissed and their tongues explored there was no restraint, no embarrassment now. They made love. It seemed natural, a perfect-culmination.
Raj was by no means a virgin. He had his flings. But always the act of love to him had been just an outlet for his desires. There was on emotion, on feeling. His lust (he refused to give it any other name) was like any other hunger. It needed satiation. There was nothing more to it. What he read in the book about the sublime, the beautiful experience of lovemaking he had dismissed as chimerical fantasies, exaggerated notions.
But today he realized he was wrong. The act of love could be sublime……it was sublime……
She left him in the early hours. Her last words were-Raj let there be no contact, no correspondence. Let this be our last meeting. You will always remain a fond memory. He wanted to stop her. To give vent to his feelings. To declare his love. But he did nothing. She walked out of his house and out of his life forever. He heard no more from her. Keeping in mind her last words he made no attempt to pursue her. He resigned himself to his dull monotonous life. And when he got an offer from the States he gladly accepted. He was on deputation for two years. He returned only to go back, as professor of English to Punjab University. Hyderabad was now just a distant memory.
Next day, after making sure that Priya was on duty, he went to Mahim.
An old man opened the door. He was around seventy.
“You must be Mr. Narayan. I am Gupta. I knew Radhika when she was a student at Hyderabad. I came to know that she is no more.”
“Yes, come in.”
They sat down. The old man put on his specs and peered at him.
“So you knew poor Radhika. Was she your student?”
“Not exactly, we were in the same department.” He didn’t know why he was persisting with this falsehood.
“Mr. Narayan sighed. Poor girl. Happiness was just not in her destiny.”
After her Ph.D. she was to be married. July 27th was the wedding. Just two days before the wedding the groom’s mother died. The marriage had to be postponed by six months. It was fixed in February. There were still three months to go when the scandal broke out. Radhika was pregnant. The father was not her fiancée Shyam. When he came to know he broke the engagement. What could we do, the fault was Radhika’s. We shouted and cursed her. She had brought shame to her family. Our honor was besmirched. We begged her to have an abortion or reveal the name of the father. She did neither. I think she made efforts to contact him. But it was useless. That devil had disappeared after…..after planting his seed in her.”
“What happened later?”
“Nothing much. She gave birth to a daughter and died in childbirth.”
Raj sat up. ‘Had he heard right? Was it true. Could……could it be possible? Priya was his daughter, his own child, born out of wedlock’.
Leaving the house he walked out in a daze. ‘Was all this a dream? Radhika -poor thing. If only he had known’.
She must have made efforts to contact him at Hyderabad while he was in States. If only she had succeeded. He cursed himself, cursed his fate and cursed God. How insane the whole thing was. Twenty years he had lived without the foggiest of notion that he had a daughter. The poor child, a result of their brief tempestuous affair, had been brought up as an orphan, while her wretched father was alive. He wanted to rush, take Priya in his arms and tell her that he was her father. He was the devil who was responsible for everything that had happened. He wanted to press his daughter to his heart and have a good cry. To weep away the frustration and the searing pain.
He had been walking like a man possessed. He was near the beach now. He sat down on a rock, a lonely figure, wrestling with his emotions.
His heart advised him to confess everything to Priya. His head told him that this would be stupid. Would she believe him- a stranger coming from God knows where and declaring that he was her father! It was impossible. He had no proof. He couldn’t expect any sane person to believe him. She would label him an imposter, a crook or simply stark raving mad. And even if she by some remote chance (the probability was one in a million) did believe him would she welcome him? He who had been responsible, even though unknowingly, for her misfortune; would she forgive him? He could hardly expect that. If he was in her place what would he have felt- hatred, anger, contempt, yes, but forgiveness certainly not, love absolutely not. It was useless. Totally useless. There was absolutely nothing he could do.
He left that evening for Chandigarh.
Days passed by ……….
Every time he came to Bombay (and the trips grew frequent) he would stay at Emerald. Often he and Priya had coffee together. Sometimes they dined. Priya gradually began to feel affection for this strange old man who took such an interest in her. She was puzzled by all the attention he bestowed on her. At the end of every trip he would try to give her some present. She would always refuse, thanking him for his kindness. How could she accept gifts from a stranger?
One day a trifle irritated at his insistence she asked him, “Why do you persist on lavishing gifts on me? What am I to you?”
He looked at her strangely. There was an expression so indefinably tender in his eyes that she couldn’t help feeling sorry for her rudeness.
“I had a daughter. She…….she was snatched away from me. You remind me of her. When I give something to you I feel it is she who is receiving it. I know this sounds terribly maudlin and quixotic. But just consider it an eccentricity of an old man. It will give me great pleasure if you accept. Won’t you?”
After this she never refused anything he gave her.
Five years went gone by. Priya was getting married. She was busy sending invitation cards. On an impulse she sent one to him on his college address. She had not met him for quite some time.
She was married. On her return from Ooty, where they had gone for the honeymoon, she found a registered letter. It contained some documents and a letter in an unfamiliar hand.
By the time this letters reaches you I will be no more.
It will be posted only after my death. I received your wedding invitation.
I wish you a happy married life.
I know you were always surprised at my unusual interest in you. I wanted to tell you, to unburden myself, but I knew there was no point, no use. The reason is simple dear Priya. I took such an interest in you; I spent as much time as I could with you, I lavished gifts on you, because the child who was snatched away from me is you. Yes Priya, I’m your father. I am that unfortunate, wretched man who could never give you the affection which was your due.
It’s a long, painful story. Please have patience and read.
You may then hopefully forgive me………
She read the entire letter. At the end were the words –Now, Priya you probably realize why I could not confess to you earlier. I hope you’ll forgive me. The document enclosed along with this letter is a copy of my Will. What little I have is yours my dear. I hope you’ll be happy….
Your unfortunate father,
Tears started streaming down her face. She remembered the gray head, the tender eyes, and the wistful smile of an old man who happened to be her father. Who on account of the cruel circumstance had never been able to call her child, his daughter. And had died with this wish unfulfilled, died a broken-hearted man, now knowing whether he had been forgiven, whether he was leaving behind tender memories or hatred…..