16 January, 2020
Story by Rita Singh has won the best story award in 999 Not Out – a story writing competition organized by IGenPlus.
I woke up. It was still dark. I saw my father goung towards the paddy fields. The air was dry and the sky, cloudless. I got up to go towards him. He seemed to be taking that usual route he had been taking to work, for as far back in time I could remember, “but why at this hour?” I thought. As I followed him soundlessly, he continued with the same routine that he used to cut wood . His characteristic vigour was now replaced by labourous swings of the axe to the trunk. This was the second time in two days he had ventured out in the night, yet I was tired to give it any special consideration. I turned back for home. I laid down on the chatai and within minutes was back to sleep till the sunlight interrupted my slumber. I groggily rubbed my eyes, as I heard father waking me up. I was too afraid to bring up last night as I might get yelled at for not being in bed till late. I hurriedly got dressed and headed for school. The day at school was like any other day- complaing about teachers and reasoning out why the school planned to kill us with homework. Day at school got over, but I did not get to meet Baba. He had gone out to work, again. “I just wish he took out time for himself. He’s gotten a little too busy these days… ” Time went by, and it wasn’t until late evening that Baba returned home.
None of us talked much that day as Baba seemed to struggle with painful bouts of coughing. “Baba, I think you’re really unwell.” “No, beta, I’m fine.” was just about the only conversation that evening. “Well, I think, you should at least rest properly, well, at least tonight” which, perhaps, hinted to him that I followed him the other night. He seemed a little fazed, thinking about whether or not I knew of his overworking.
It was 11 at night and I was heading to sleep, but not before making sure Baba slept too. I put my ear to his door, to check if still in the room, I could hear his coughs loud and clear. I silently opened the door. He was asleep. Still coughing, but asleep. Then something caught my eye. Was that blood I saw? All of a sudden he shot up and fervently started rubbing his chest I managed to hide myself behind the door without being noticed. “But, was that really blood? What was happening to Baba? Was he okay? I’m sure he isn’t right now, but is there something I can do to make him alright?” These thoughts filled my little brain through the night and even at school, while in class, just everywhere.
On my way back from school as I neared home, I noticed there was a visitor. Baba seemed to be unusually distant since I followed him the other night and I was desparately looking for answers. I stood outside the door, hoping to cling onto the conversation taking place inside. Anything that could explain what had been going on all this while. It seemed Baba was talking to Sahukar ji, the moneylender of our village who had helped Baba in the past. “Just accept my plea Sahukar ji, you know me well. I have always paid everything I have ever owed you without the slightest delay. I may not live very long but all I ask of you is to help me one last time. I need some money to buy medicine to prolong my life. My small daughter is all I have. With whatever little time I have left, I need to earn enough for her so she does not have to fall at someone else’s feet for help once I’m gone.”….
I was too numb to respond. My eyes and ears started to burn, I could feel a clump in my throat as I did my best to withold my tears. This couldn’t be. He can’t leave me like this. This cannot happen. Baba’s not going anywhere. I can’t let him. I had to get the money from somewhere. When Baba went to bed that night. I searched through the house to look for the potter’s wheel that my dead mother taught me how to make pots on.
I set up the wheel and went out to the paddy field to fetch a lump of clay. Little by little, in the hours of the night, I started making pots that I collected and kept away from Baba’s eyes. When Baba thought I was out ‘playing’, I would take the pots and walk to the city market close to the village.
Day after day, the searing sunshine of the afternoons had become my companion during my long walks to the city market. My little hands, now hardened, had become accustomed to selling those small pots but my effort was not in vain. With every pot I made, my gullak was getting heavier but with months passing by, Baba’s health was only getting worse.
It was the first stroke of daylight, I could hear Baba approaching the door after his night routine. This time, I got up and stood at the door. “How are you now, Baba?”, “I am good beta , why do you ask?” “It’s okay, I know everything”. I could see Baba’s eyes tearing up as he stared at me. “Baba, I know how much you’ve suffered and the nights you’ve put into this”. Baba didn’t say a word. “But all I want from you is to take this and come with me to the doctor” – the gullak was broken and out came the money I had collected. Baba stood there pensively, small tears started to roll down his cheeks as he approached to embrace me.
The next morning we headed to the hospital where Baba was finally admitted. A month passed by; he was now making steady progress towards recovery. “Raju, you will be discharged soon now”, said the doctor by his side. “Is she your daughter?” He asked pointing towards me. “Yes, she is my daughter”, Baba smiled.