Authors: Shobhan Bantwal
“Priya and Diya!” He raised a brow at Priya, pretending surprise. “How did you manage to find an equally pretty name?
And one that rhymes with yours? You must be very clever.”
That melted Priya’s frosty attitude in an instant, and even elicited a pleased smile. “Mummy chose the name, not me.”
“Then your Mummy must be clever, too.” He glanced at Isha with a hint of conspiracy in his dark eyes.
Isha returned the look. It was he that was clever. With very little effort he’d managed to break through Priya’s reserve. The discovery came as one more surprise. When had this quiet and serious man become so friendly and witty? Was he always like that, even in his youth?
Entirely comfortable now with the doctor, Priya slowly 68
shifted from her mother’s side to stand beside him. Natural curiosity about what he was doing to the baby was another possible reason. Pointing to the dark stub sticking out of the baby’s navel, she wrinkled her nose.
“That’s her navel, her belly button,” replied Dr. Salvi, the picture of patience. “In a few days this will fall off and her belly button will look just like yours.”
“Oh.” Priya looked at the baby with awe. “Why is she so red?”
Mother Regina sighed. “Regular little chatterbox, isn’t she?
So full of questions. In the classroom, her teachers often have to tell Priya to hush up.”
Dr. Salvi shook his head. “That’s okay, Mother. Children need to be curious. Their brains are able to develop and grow in a healthy manner only through inquisitiveness and experimentation.”
Isha realized that in his own way the good doctor had put the old nun in her place. Good for him, she thought with an inward smile. The nuns were way too obsessed with discipline. They often managed to suppress and gradually kill a child’s natural curiosity and spirit. That’s probably why some of those orphans seemed so listless and slow to learn. She’d often wondered why such a large and diverse group of children showed similar mental and emotional characteristics.
Over the next few minutes, the doctor answered Priya’s long list of questions in terms easy enough for a child to understand.
He had a well-modulated voice that was both soothing and commanding at the same time.
Isha found herself immensely interested in the way he explained things. She realized she was learning a few fascinating facts about babies along with her daughter. Mother Regina, too, was paying serious attention to him. If he weren’t a doctor, he probably would have made an excellent teacher.
Priya seemed impressed at having an adult treat her like a grownup. Meanwhile, the baby, perhaps because her nappy and chemise were now back in place, had gone from bawling to soft whimpering.
Dr. Salvi, having completed his exam, swaddled the baby once again. That quieted her down to the point of drowsiness.
Her translucent eyelids were beginning to close. He returned her to Isha’s arms. “She’s a healthy baby.”
“Everything is normal?” Isha looked at him, trying to keep the anxiety to herself.
“Yes. Nothing to worry about.” He inclined his head toward Priya. “Who’s Priya’s pediatrician?”
“I’m assuming Priya has been inoculated on a regular schedule by Dr. Bajaj?”
“Yes, always. Nikhil . . . uh . . . my late husband and I made sure Priya had regular checkups. She had her boosters five months ago.”
He nodded. “That’s good. We only need to concern ourselves with Diya at this time, then. If you’re planning to nurse her, she won’t need any other kind of nutrition right now. But if you feel she’s not getting enough, you might want to consider supplementing with a good formula.”
“Oh.” Isha wondered how she was going to get baby formula. With all the things going on in her life, she hadn’t even thought about such things. Formula cost a lot of money and she needed to save what little she had for emergencies.
The doctor must have noticed her anxious expression. “I have plenty of samples in my office. I can drop them off with Mother Regina tomorrow.” He turned to the nun. “Is that okay, Mother?”
“Of course,” said Mother Regina. “It is very kind of you, Dr. Salvi. We are very grateful.”
Isha seconded the sentiment. “Yes, Doctor. Thank you so much for coming all this way to do me a favor. I really appreciate it.”
“Please, don’t even mention it,” he said with a shake of his head. He turned to address Priya once again. “Priya, are you going to help your mummy take care of your sister?”
Priya gave him a solemn nod. “I get to hold her bottle.”
“Then you’re in charge of the bottle. And you have to be careful with Diya because she’s a tiny baby and very delicate.”
“Okay.” Priya looked thrilled at being treated like a responsible adult.
He pulled a business card out of his pocket and scribbled something on the back of it before handing it to Isha. “If you have any questions, please contact me. Diya’s going to need her first immunization against tuberculosis right away. I’ll stop by later in the week and give it to her. At six weeks she’ll need to get the first doses of DPT and OPV.”
Both Isha and Mother Regina were knowledgeable about the acronyms and he seemed to assume they were. She looked at the card, then back at him. “Thank you very much.” She knew she’d never be able to repay such kindness on the part of a stranger, or near-stranger. She watched him repack his bag and follow Mother Regina out.
As soon as Mother Regina closed the door behind them, Isha looked at the back of the card where he had scribbled something. It took her a moment to decipher the writing:
“Call me if
you have questions or need help.”
His mobile number was indicated next to it. Puzzled, she read the message once again. Why had he given her his mobile number?
He obviously didn’t want Mother Regina to see the note. It was very generous of him to want to help, but Isha didn’t think she would take him up on his offer. She needed help for sure, but what was she going to say to a stranger? How could she tell him about her circumstances?
Dr. Salvi probably had a wife and children of his own. He’d never understand what he’d consider Isha’s irrational decision to put her children’s lives in jeopardy by walking out on her in-laws and the comforts they provided.
But she couldn’t live like this forever, either. Maybe if she did reach out to Harish Salvi, he could help her find a job or something. As a local doctor, he must have a few connections. But with two small children depending on her and with no more than a bachelor’s degree to her name, what was she qualified to do? Besides, half the town knew her as Nikhil Tilak’s widow and the daughter-in-law of Srikant and Vidula Tilak. What would be their reaction if she applied for a job?
She was in a tight spot. Would she ever find her way out of it?
Asking Priya to watch the sleeping baby for a few minutes, THE
she took the opportunity to use the bathroom and wash all the dirty nappies that had been accumulating all day. Every little chore was such an effort. She just wanted to lie down and rest.
But there was no question of rest. She had promised the nuns she’d resume work within four weeks.
Later, after she had hung the nappies out to dry on the clothesline outside the bathrooms, it took her a while to get Priya to go back to sleep and to get herself and the baby settled.
Diya woke up nearly every hour, hungry and wet.
For the hundredth time Isha wished for the marvelous help she’d had when Priya was born. Back then, she’d gone to her mother’s house to have the baby in the conservative Indian tradition. Women went to their parents’ home to have their babies, and in the process were pampered by their mothers.
Since her mother had also lived in Palgaum, Nikhil was there beside Isha in the delivery room, and then came to visit her and the baby every day, until he could take them both back to their own home. Isha hadn’t had to lift a finger back then.
Sundari had been there exclusively to tend to her and the baby. She’d given both Isha and the infant Priya an oil massage every day, followed by a hot, leisurely bath.
It was heaven in those days. Both Sundari and Isha’s mother had made sure Isha drank milk and ate nutritious foods to keep up her strength and generate plenty of breast milk for the newborn.
But her widowed mother had passed away three years ago, after losing her fight with breast cancer. Then, last summer, Nikhil had become a murder victim, and now Isha had no one to rely on but herself to raise her two children.
Fresh and nutritious food was only a dream. She was lucky if she could have a slice of bread and a boiled potato or carrot in the convent’s meager dining hall. They served tiny portions of pork and beef, which she and Priya had never tasted, because it went against their Brahmin faith. Poor Priya literally gagged on the bland, uniformly gray food.
How could her idyllic life have taken such a sharp turn in such a short time?
* * *
There was something odd about that scene, as if it didn’t belong there, like seeing an exotic animal outside its natural habi-tat. It just didn’t add up.
Isha Ketkar, or rather Isha Tilak, was the last person on earth he’d imagined he’d run into at a convent—as a resident, that is.
When Mother Regina had mentioned a recent widow who’d come to seek asylum, he’d never expected someone like Isha.
What exactly had reduced her to this degree of destitution?
She had to be desperate to beg the nuns to take her in. How heartbreaking was it to become a widow at such a young age and, moreover, to have been pregnant when it happened?
A minute later, he drove out of the convent compound and saw Sister Rose in the rearview mirror, shutting the gates behind him and slapping the iron padlock on them.
Despite the convent’s location in the center of town, it might as well have been in a godforsaken desert. Once that lock was in place, the outside world probably ceased to exist for those living inside.
His thoughts remained centered on Isha as he maneuvered the car along the narrow, pedestrian- and bicycle-clogged streets.
Recalling the rough, worn sheet her beautiful newborn baby was wrapped in, he sighed. An infant from a family like hers should have been dressed in spotless clothes and swaddled in a soft blanket. The older child, Priya, who seemed so bright and pretty and inquisitive, should have been sleeping on a proper bed and not a hard floor.
How was Isha going to manage the care of the children? Did she have any money at all or had she fled her in-laws’ home with nothing? Had they abused her in some way? Was that why she had left them, or had they cast her out with no mercy? What kind of people were they?
In the next instant something triggered in his brain. The truth THE
dawned on him. There were very few Tilaks in town. Her in-laws were probably the most prominent ones—owners of the largest tire distributorship in the state. They were wealthy folks and well-known in the area. And she’d said her husband’s name was Nikhil.
As Harish slowly started to put together the missing pieces of the puzzle, he recalled the media frenzy some months ago surrounding Nikhil Tilak’s puzzling and brutal murder. So, Isha had been married to the late Nikhil—a handsome, wealthy, charismatic businessman—every girl’s dream husband. Why hadn’t Harish made the connection immediately? Nikhil was just the sort of man he had imagined a girl like Isha would end up with.
Nikhil had been about three years senior to Harish in college, but Harish remembered how the girls had tripped over each other in trying to capture Nikhil’s attention. He used to be the college tennis champion. He had a mediocre academic record, but he hadn’t needed brilliant marks or advanced degrees since he had a thriving business handed to him on a platter.
Harish even recalled his own family talking about Nikhil’s shocking homicide and shaking their heads in bewilderment.
“A brutal murder in a town like Palgaum!” his father had exclaimed. “Very strange. Someone must have had a reason to do it, because those Tilaks are involved in all that black-marketeering business.”
His father was old-school and disdained illegal business practices. But he could be right. Powerful and wealthy people made enemies.
“Such a tragedy, no?” his mother had clucked. “Imagine what the man’s parents are suffering. And that poor girl who was married to him is now a widow. She is so young, too.”
As far as Harish knew, Nikhil’s killer was still at large. The whole episode was a mystery.
Harish hadn’t known then that Nikhil’s widow was Isha Ketkar. After he’d left for medical school, Harish had not stayed in touch with Palgaum and most of his classmates, let alone kept up with who was married to whom. Nor did he read the local newspapers much. He watched some national news on TV every 74
night and read the headlines
in The Times of India
Besides, the papers had focused mainly on the bizarre killing and the ensuing investigation, with the names of the grieving family members rarely mentioned. Perhaps the Tilaks had requested the local media to keep their names out of the limelight so they could deal with their sorrow in private.
But now that he’d more or less solved the puzzle, Harish knew exactly who Isha was. Nonetheless, how had the Tilaks’
widowed daughter-in-law ended up in such dire straits? That he couldn’t understand.
Suddenly he realized he wasn’t hungry anymore. Seeing the little girl, Priya, who was probably getting much less than the basic minimum nutrition, he no longer felt like eating.
Pulling out his mobile phone, he called his mother. “Mamma, I’m running very late and I’m not hungry. Please don’t wait up for me.” Although Harish had his own house, he generally ate his meals at his older, married brother’s home, which also happened to be where his parents lived.