(Published previously in The Youth Express magazine.)
“Kingfisher Airlines announces the departure of its flight XU 764 to Mumbai. The following passengers…”
He was already seated inside, staring sightlessly through the window at the other aircraft as, inside the airport, last-minute boarding calls were being made and late passengers escorted personally and swiftly by personnel in Kingfisher uniforms. Usually a last-minute boarder himself, today he had been the first – the very first, right at the head of the line – to board the plane. Already, it seemed to him as if the plane would never leave. And then, after what seemed an eternity, the safety announcements came on, Yana Gupta demonstrated something in front of him on a screen that he paid absolutely no attention to, and the flight took off. And the blood thrummed in his veins, and his heart sang, for he was going home to see her.
He had always had strained relations with his wife. An arranged marriage, it was doomed to fail from the start. They were two headstrong individuals with past relationships which had not quite died; two passionate, argumentative souls, neither willing to concede a point, and almost always possessed of differing views on every subject under the sun. The passion was there, swift and fast, like a devouring flame – but passion can only sustain a relationship so far, and no further. Infidelity, betrayals, harsh slaps, harsher words, blood trickling down the side of his face; an atmosphere alternately so scorching the sun bowed before it, and so cold they could well have frozen to death. It had not taken them long to reach there – a shattered wineglass, loud swearing, quiet sobbing and it was over.
Naina had packed her bags and shot out of the house like a rocket, cursing viciously. His wife would have killed him given half a chance, he thought wryly, declining a glass of orange juice the air-hostess offered him. He would have gladly returned the favour! She had filed papers, he had accepted them with a delight that made her grind her teeth, their families had stopped all interaction. It didn’t require Nostradamus to predict where they were headed. Separation, an ugly word, was as welcome as a long-lost son, being the only and final solution to the pain they had both endured in the name of a marriage that was a marriage in name only.
Until everything had changed one afternoon.
An afternoon where the sun shone brighter than ever, the world seemed a myriad ocean of colour, and he had sat, unable to believe what they were discussing, what she was telling him, what was to be. Disbelief, wonderment, a thousand emotions, and most of all the question – what now?
Arguments, discussions, headaches and endless aspirin later, she had moved back in. He had respected her for the decision, knowing how hard it must have been for her to agree to live with a man she had come to hate. He had swallowed bitterness and anger and tried to be what he had never once considered being – a considerate husband – and she had not failed to realize what he must be going through. In performing an act that neither of them had wanted to in the slightest, they had unwittingly sown the seeds of a mutual respect, something that had been conspicuous by its absence in the earlier, tempestuous days… All because something had happened that would change both their lives.
As an inane Bollywood movie ran on the screen in front of him, he reclined his head against the seat and looked at the clouds which caressed the airplane’s wings, his mind running through the early days, the struggle that had been once they had decided to move in again together. Husband and wife had indeed struggled under the same roof to once more talk, dine, live, trying to mend fences, realizing that in some places the fence had cracked well beyond repair, and yet persevering to create some semblance of love in the strained atmosphere. With absolutely no love in his heart, he had gifted her roses every Monday. With no notion of wifely devotion, she had packed him lunch every single morning. They had taken walks together, bound only by a grim promise to do so, and forced themselves to endure the burden of each other’s company again and again and again.
Finally, in what must rank as the greatest irony in both their lives, it was this soulless dedication to preserve a dead marriage that kindled it back to life, blew breath into its expired frame, and pounded blood through its empty veins. Slowly, he had found himself wanting to come back to her presence, a silent but increasingly important presence. For her part, she had begun to look forward with quiet expectancy each week for his small gifts, taking pleasure in them. Over the last leg of the journey, the last three or four months, they had grown close, preferring mutual silences and simple handholding, a stark contrast to the aggressive lovemaking and violent fights that had marked the initial days. Quiet love, it seemed, was every inch as whole, as real, as mad passion. For the past month, he had missed his wife, who had gone away out of necessity, as he had seldom missed anyone in his life.
But love her as he might, it was not his wife that he was dying to see now, as the plane landed and passengers made a mad rush to exit first. It was not his wife’s name that ran through his head; it was not his wife’s face that he saw in his mind’s eye. It was her face, the face of the angel who had brought him and his wife closer than they had ever been. It was her that his trembling fingers sought to touch, she – the subject of that one conversation seven months back that had changed his life, his wife’s life, sprinkled love where there was none, brought hope to their lives, created magic. His eyes, unknown to him, clouded with tears, and he wondered how she looked, what her eyes sought, how soft her skin was, how fair her face, how black her hair. And once he was out of the damned line in the flight, he was the only passenger who did not run for his baggage, for his baggage did not matter anymore. His feet flew, stumbling, his thoughts in a whirl, his throat choked with tears, running, running…
And there his wife stood, slightly plump, radiant. He was dimly aware of relatives, loved ones standing to the background, his aunt, some nephews… but nothing else and no one else mattered. His attention was focused on her, as he took the last few steps towards his most prized possession, his new reason for living. With infinite care, he took her into his arms and gazed reverently down at her.
She looked solemnly back at him, all of twelve inches, her soft curly wisps of hair blowing gently in the breeze from the standing-fan close by, her cheeks tender and pink, her eyes large and black and loving, the tiny rounded nose, her tiny starfish palm nestling in his own larger hand- and he felt like his heart would burst, her knees would buckle. Tears rolled down his face and landed on her cheek and she smiled a slow, wide smile, the ecstatic, toothless expression of joy unique to an infant.
Taking a deep breath, the father leaned forward and placed one gentle kiss, filled with every ounce of love that he could bear, on the cheek of his tender daughter as she gurgled contentedly. Naina smiled through her tears and he raised his head to look at her, eyes wide in wonderment, seeking what he knew not – but she understood all the same and nodded, the slightest of nods and spoke softly.
“Welcome to fatherhood.”