It was dinner time. Like always everyone was at the table ready for a hot meal of chapattis and vegetables. The first signs of summer were setting it – in our small room it was warm and slightly stuffy. I was seething. The warmth became hotter under my heavy breath. Thoughts turned continuously in my head, but there was rage in my heart. Should I make a confrontation? I had to. And with one breath for renewed energy, I broke the silence. “Do you have other children?” All eyes upon me; I had broken a silence that had moved from once being awkward to then being feared and finally had begun to eat on me. “How many families are you maintaining at one time, father?” – I rued up all my strength to speak out loud. A tear rolled down my mother’s eye. The fan whirled slowly, a light breeze cooled the tense moment – a moment in which all of us thought. Slowly my father rose from the table.
It had been a while since a word explaining my father’s late night returns, absences over the weekend and his silent irritation had reached our ears. It was only a word which our mother insisted was wasteful gossip. Ofcourse, my sister and I were so busy with our own lives; the dreary experience of commuting in crowded trains across the city, the heat, the sweat and the ever-growing workload left us all competing for time with ourselves and each other at the end of every day, which seemed so long. Father led a similar life and as tired as we were at the end of each day, there was only a mind for smiles and mindless exchanges about our day. Sometimes father returned very late and mother would wait endlessly for a knock on the door. In the trance of our sleep, we noticed in a blur the fire being cooked up again, the table being laid once more and the swirling of the fan in the next room; continuing until we never knew when. Deep slumber would have taken its course by then.
But then the recession hit. Money was precious, as jobs were an uncertainty. Even between varying dinner timings and the descend in our mindless conversations, the absence of our father on one night troubled us out of sleep, a sleep that was probably rare to come over the next many many months. “He has to work hard as there are not many projects coming our way. Travelling tires him out and so he decided to stay in office last night,” explained mother the next day. As days passed and news of recessions hit the headlines everyday, father’s absences became longer and more frequent. Often he would be home at odd hours in the afternoon, curt when he received the phone. I would call after lunch to chat with Mother. One day father received the phone call and Mother’s asked me not to be so inquisitive. This was when the first word about father having a home in another part the city reached us. In this time of recession, people had little to keep themselves busy with and therefore idle gossip made for empty afternoons and late evenings. Father had been very successful and mother always explained ‘gossip’ as a tactic of unhealthy competition. And we still smiled sometimes; shared stories about our days on now-one-off evenings together. But how long could she have held herself and our family together on that string of thought. Our days were becoming longer as my sister and I began staying up with mother because it was becoming difficult to deal with her disconnected conversations and bouts of inexplicable staring into space.
The more we goaded her for answers the more irritant she became. She would stay up whole nights waiting for the knock on the door. Rare gossip almost became everyday news flowing in from second cousins, wives of father’s friends and eventually even our own aunts. But to put a question, each one of us knew, would be to end an era. Would it be for better or for worse… no one knew.
Father’s silence that evening, not even the slightest protest to my thoroughly outspoken self laid to rest the conflict within ourselves. Upon only a word from my sister and me he packed his bags and left. My mother only watched. I never understood and I never asked whether she disagreed with my conduct that had brought to end her disrupted, yet routine life. In the retrospective, when I see her today, I feel that maybe she always knew, but had learnt to gain strength from the disrupted stability of her life.
It is been five years now. My cousins are still cousins, my aunts are still aunts; my father is no more my father.