Fiction: My Father's Daughter

Deepak Sharma

Author: Deepak Sharma

Translation from Hindi by Madhu B Joshi

"There are two police constables at the door", Baby had gone to answer the doorbell, "one has a pistol and the other one has a police baton. The man with the baton says his name is Meethaylal. Says he is here to collect his daughter."

Pulling the sock over Suneeta Mahendru's mother's foot, my hands shook.

"Don't you worry," folding the evening paper Suneeta Mahendru threw me a glance, "I won't let you go."
"The rascal thinks now that your mother is no more, he can take you away just like that," Suneeta Mahendru's mother wore a crooked smile.

"Well, bring the girl here," the impatient, loud voice from the verandah reached us.

"Don't let him take you away," Suneeta Mahendru's mother whispered, "remember, to her last breath your mother was fighting in the court to keep you away from him?"

"I do remember," I was embarrassed, "but what is the harm in seeing him now?"

"Your baap made your mother's life hell and yet you will meet that devil?" Baby added, "why don't you hate him?"

Under her mother and grandmother's tutelage Baby considers a father a dangerous and contaminating creature. Funnier still is the fact that the fat salaried executive Suneeta Mahendru, her mother who retired as the principal of an intermediate college and Baby who studies in the eighth standard at the most expensive school in town; all refer to 'father' as baap.

Suneeta Mahendru had returned to her mother when Baby had been six months old. And so Baby had had no truck with her father.

"Damayantee....Damayantee!" Suneeta Mahendru called me to the verandah.

They did not know it was I who had called my father here through a phone message.

I knew the use and extent of Suneeta Mahendru's telephone and telephone directory well. I had often seen her dial phone numbers and dialled a number the first chance I had. I had found the name and phone number of my father's counsel in the court papers in ma's box. Seven years in the municipal school had stood me in good stead, I could recognize English letters.

"I have an important message for Mr. Sudheer Bhadauriya. Please tell me where I can contact him?"

"This is Sudheer Bhadauriya speaking." The warmth on the other end of the line reached me across four hundred miles.

"I wish to see Meethaylal." I drawled in the special Suneeta Mahendru style. "I understand you are his counsel."

"Come to my office right away, I will fix a meeting." Perhaps Mr. Bhadariya did not remember my father's case properly.

"I am calling from Lucknow....How can I be at your office so soon? Why don't you give me Meethaylal's phone number? I will call him...."

"I do have a number...”  Sudheer Bhadauriya's memory had been refreshed, "but at the moment I do not have the diary in which I wrote his number"

""I am Meethaylal's daughter," I sobbed, "my mother is dead and I don't wish to stay here.....these people are very bad...they have pulled me out of school and now they make me do all the chores....Send my father here at once... Tell him to take me away or I too will my mother...” 

"I am here to fetch you." My father's police baton moved towards me.
I remembered this police baton and his heavy boots more than I remembered his features. That police baton and those heavy boots had been part of ma's bitter memories and nightmares.
"Damayantee doesn't wish to go with you," Suneeta Mahendru draped her arm around my shoulders, "she is very happy here...she eats well...wears clean clothes..."
"And instead of going to the school, does chores for you," the constable with the pistol roared. "Don't you know the law forbids forcibly employing children below fourteen?"
"I haven't kidnapped the girl from the road," Suneeta Mahendru defended herself. "Her mother had been a proper ayah with us here for four years and when she was dying, she rightfully handed her over to me...."
"Properly....rightfully...." The pistol toting constable guffawed, "Did she write on a stamped paper that you are to get work out of her without paying her anything? Did she write-exploit her as an errand girl and make her your bonded slave? Did she...?"

Taking a cue from the pistolwallah father pounced too, "her mother has been dead for a month. What have you paid her as wages this month?"
"Considering the way I have spent money on her mother's treatment, she shouldn't be paid a paisa for several years... ...yet you see I am bearing her boarding-lodging expenses ungrudgingly...." Suneeta Mahendru tried to checkmate them. 
"Have some fear of God," my father's lips curled, "you talk of spending money on the treatment of the woman you worked to death... "

Father's retort made my heart swell with pride. I shook off Suneeta Mahendru's hand and moved next to him.

With father by my side, I had decided to bring the woman's arrogance down several notches....

In my heart rose a sharp desire to tell father everything ... ..How mother had been suffering from fever these last few months yet this tough task master expected her to do all chores to perfection: 'Why isn't the meat tender?' 'Why didn't you swab the floor properly?' 'Why is the laundry so dull?' 

... How when last month, after cooking for a big party ma's fever wouldn't settle, Suneeta Mahendru had dumped her in the hospital, "here an army of government doctors and nurses is at your beck and call, at home there is nobody to take care of you...” 

... .How when despite Suneeta Mahendru's opposition I insisted on being with ma at the hospital, this cunning woman sweet talked ma and fixed my hours with her, "Damayantee staying with you at night is not know, a girl alone.....She will come to you at two in the noon and on my way home from the office I myself will take her home at six in the evening." She hadn't wanted her stroke-ridden mother to be alone at home during Baby's school hours.

... .....How when on her fourth day in the hospital ma was dying at seven thirty in the morning, I had been colouring Suneeta Mahendru's hair. Her heart hadn't moved even on hearing of ma's death.....She had taken her usual time to change, reached the hospital just an hour ahead of her office time and organized ma's cremation right there. The hospital had been in an even greater hurry, within minutes they had dispatched ma to the morgue. Suneeta Mahendru had brought me home with ma's utensils and clothes. Exactly like other days, that day too before leaving for the office, her parting shot to me had been, "take care of  mama"... ....

"Why God alone" pistolwallah threatened Suneeta Mahendru, "you should be scared of the law as well...A healthy, strong woman comes to your house to work and within four years she is dead... ...This is clearly a police case... ..."

"If you wish to take Damayantee, do so by all means." Suneeta Mahendru was scared, "I know you are taking advantage of the fact that there is no man in the family... .."

"You are mistaken," father's face changed colour, "we are not here to trouble you, but then you too should think about us. Pay fair wages for the work done....”

"Alright!" Suneeta Mahendru gave father the dimpled smile she reserved for special occasions. "So would a hundred rupees a month do?"
"Where I live, the lady of the house pays a hundred rupees just for washing clothes." Father smiled a funny smile, "she is prepared to pay five hundred rupees for the type of round the clock help Damayantee provides you....” 
"This is an all woman family," emboldened, Suneeta flashed the dimples again. "No possibility of hanky-panky of any sort here. The girl is growing, in another home there could be risks for her....Think carefully, what do you value- your daughter's honour or money?"
"A hundred rupees is a small sum," father waved the baton, "you ought to pay at least four hundred rupees a month...” 
"Not four hundred," Suneeta Mahendru turned to leave, "two hundred."
"Three hundred...” 
"Let's settle it at two and a half," Suneeta Mahendru left to bring the money.
"Your mother spread all sorts of lies about me," father struck his palm with the baton, "but I forgot all that for you... "
"I don't want to live here," I wept, "take me with you.... I will do that five hundred rupees a month job.... I won't live here....” 
"Five hundred?" Father laughed hard, "I mentioned that to extract money from this mem.... I have no place there, where am I going to keep you? This be an OK sort of place. You be here for a few years....” 
"But I want to study... "
"And what will you do with studying?" The man with the pistol grinned, "become the district collector?"
"But you said in the court you would educate me as much as I wished...." I was stubborn.

Father shook the baton at me, "you best drop this habit of questioning elders. You will be one wretched woman if you continue your mother's ways.... She competed with the rich... .Got ideas seeing this mem free after her divorce....just plain forgot she fed on her poor uncle's leftovers, grew up hearing her aunts swearing and taunts, had none but me in the whole wide world... and yet she dared to dream of freedom and respect....”

"Who all do you have there?" The agitation ma had had in her last days, surfaced in my voice.

"Two of your sisters, a brother... a second mother too..." Some wave in the depths of father's heart broke free and he confessed to what he had denied in the court all the time.
"I wish to meet them all," I said. I wished to explore the hazy circles mother's talk had imprinted on my mind.
"Soon I will take you there," father slapped my back softly.
"Count it." Suneeta Mahendru handed the notes to father, "two and a half hundred."
"OK." Father counted the money and put it in his pocket, "I am her father.... The girl should not have problems here... I am going to regularly check on that....” 

"Lucky devil this one...." Suneeta Mahendru gesticulated as soon as father went away, "there he was, about to get half his salary deducted by the court... and look he is extracting your salary now....”
I felt bitter but nodded my head vaguely.
I was convinced Suneeta Mahendru was now going to think twice before ordering me to do tough chores.
Unlike my wretched mother, I wasn't an orphan with none to call my own. I have a father....

And not just any father but a father like my father!

Madhu B Joshi
Author: Deepak Sharma
Born 30 November 1946 in Lahore (undivided India)
Published 19 collections of stories in Hindi
Reader, and Head of Postgraduate Department of Engish (Retired), Lucknow Christian Postgraduate college

Translator: Madhu B Joshi
Born in 1‎956 Delhi
Communication Practitioner and major Translator
Taught translation and self-designed
Course of Indian Culture
Author of short stories for children
Poet and published articles on socio-political and cultural issues

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