16 January, 2020
Story by Gouri Mehra has won the best story award in 999 Not Out – a story writing competition organized by IGenPlus.
Naina stared at the pile of homework lying on her table. She didn’t care much for it, but today she decided to get it over with. She had spent most of the summer playing in her father’s paddy fields or sitting under the shade of the Banyan that stood right in the centre of the courtyard. Unlike most children her age, Naina preferred meandering in the complexities of her own thoughts to mingling with her classmates whose deepest concern, she imagined, was the latest film or cricket match. With great effort, she got herself to sit at the table and see her assignment. The subject was English and it said, “Write a narrative essay of about 800 words on any experience you had over the summer.” Now, while that may seem relatively simple, these were the sort of assignments that Naina feared greatly . Not because she wasn’t a decent writer with an imaginative bent, but because she seldom felt comfortable sharing her personal moments, not the least in an essay. In any case, she had hardly experienced anything this summer worth writing about, and she felt burdened by having to produce an experience worthy of the teachers’ attention. She knew she could very easily write about an experience she had never had; but she couldn’t bring herself to. Asking her parents for help would have been completely useless, for her mother didn’t live with her and her father had studied in a Hindi medium school. She knew he felt a deep sense of guilt for not being of help and she did’nt want to add to his pain So, she did what she had to in a situation like hers – procrastinate and stare out the window.
It was late now and Naina still hadn’t jotted a single word yet. She sat wondering why her father hadn’t come to kiss her goodnight. Hours slipped by; Naina could neither sleep nor write. She gazed out her window gazing intently at the starry night, lost in deep thought and then easing into a slumber until she woke up suddenly with a jerk. Unaware of how long she’d been sitting at the table and what time it was, just about daybreak, she reckoned looking out of the window
And then, she saw him.
She saw her father.
There he was in the dark, making his way across the courtyard and through the paddy fields. She knew her father to be a early riser but this seemed a little too early even by his standards! Surprised and curious,she decided to follow her father. Grabbing a stole from her wardrobe, she flew down the stairs and rushed out into the paddy fields. She maintained a safe distance between them, afraid that if she got any closer, she would be discovered. With every step she took, her heart skipped a beat. A good twenty minutes into the chase, she found it rather odd that her father was heading towards town at this early hour. More so because she knew that the town was not one of his favourite places to be unless he had to attend to some urgent business. And what could be so urgent at this hour that required his attention? As they entered town, it wore a deserted look and Naina couldn’t possibly fathom what work her father had here at this unearthly hour. She noticed that they continued along the main road, not making any unexpected turns. This was to her advantage, for there were ample trees and pillars behind which she could hide if he got suspicious and turned to look behind. The Sun had started to rise and Naina knew that she wouldn’t be able to stay concealed for long if he didn’t reach his destination soon. Breathing lightly, of one thing she was sure; her father, who shared everything with his beloved daughter, was hiding something from her.
After another hundred metres, she noticed that her father stepped into a tiny eatery, the one she recollected was run by the retired teacher couple. Had he come all this way for a cup of tea? She stood behind a pillar and listened. She then heard her father break into a conversation in Hindi with a man whose voice one was of calm and wisdom.
“I appreciate your coming so early. You know I have to take care of other work,” said the man.
“It’s no problem, really. At the same time, I would appreciate it if you didn’t let anybody know of this, especially my daughter,” said her father.
So, she was right.
The man continued, “Have you completed the task?”
Said her father, “It was a little difficult, but I had to do it. I hope it’s to your liking.”
Naina was on the verge of tearing up. Why had her father been so secretive with her? Unable to take any more, she was about to storm in and confront him when she heard him speak up again, “I’m really very sorry to bother you like this. But you know how important this is to me. I can do anything to see that little angel of mine smile. I know she felt ashamed last week when I could barely converse with her teacher in English at the PTM. I made a decision right there to learn the language, just to make her happy”
And that was when the tears rolled down. Naina rushed from behind the pillar and embraced her father in a tight hug. “I could never be ashamed of you Papa!” she cried as she felt him kiss her on her cheek.
That night she had no doubts about what she wanted to write. Love is a funny thing, she thought. It can make a person do anything for another. She started writing, smiling as she wrote, “I woke up. It was still dark. I saw my father going towards the paddy fields. The air was dry and the sky cloudless. I got up to go towards him….