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Fiction: Daddy

Daddy would personally supervise when mashi, the old maid who stayed with us to take care of the household, oiled my thick hair every Sunday
short story on father daughter relationship
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By now, I am getting used to the look of surprise when an acquaintance meets me after a few years. As it was with Meera yesterday.  I saw her eyes widen in a way familiar to me of late. I knew exactly what she was thinking but was too polite to comment on. I don’t blame her. After all, we had met after three years. Meera had gone to the States for higher studies while I took up this job in a publishing house. 

We were pretty close in college. Well, as close as was possible for a reticent girl like me.  I remember Meera had said when I got this job offer as a copy-editor, “Oh, it’s just the right thing for you, bookworm as you are. Good luck!’’ I had smiled, thanking her for the best wishes. I never thought of confiding in her that I too would have loved to apply for a scholarship and go abroad. My academic record was not too bad, after all.

Yesterday as we sipped coffee at the swank new cafe, I almost smiled with amusement as I saw Meera’s eyes travelling to my hair. The smart bob cut framed my heart-shaped face. I saw her discreetly eyeing the pair of silver earrings which went well with my cream blouse, black trousers and black pumps. But Meera held no surprise for me. She looked as dashing as she used to even during the college days when our pocket money was meagre. And now with her years spent in America, she looked even more chic.

Fiction: Doiboki (Part I)

Of course, I knew what was going on in Meera’s mind at the moment. She was trying to find the girl with the long plait, wearing atrociously designed clothes in garish colours that did nothing to her dusky complexion. She was trying to find the girl sticking out like a sore thumb against the college crowd, brilliant but out of sync with the milieu.

“So, how’s life?’’  Meera had broken into my reverie.

“Well, going on.’’

“How’s uncle?’’

I paused a little before replying flatly, “Daddy is dead.’’

“Oh!’’ I saw Meera’s hand go to her mouth, “I didn’t know. Sorry. When? What happened?’’ the words tumbled out as she tried to cover her embarrassment.

“A year back. Liver  cancer.’’  I was brief.

meeting at a cafe
I knew what was going on in Meera’s mind

Now, as I sit on the divan by the window, looking out to the sky where chunks of restless clouds chase each other, I can see Meera’s face again. I know what she was thinking then. “Only one year. She must be devastated, but she looks radiant!’’

She was well aware how close I was to Daddy. Mum had left us when I was in the eighth standard. Daddy was still young and our relatives had advised him to remarry for his as well as my sake. But he had fended them off saying it would be a shock to me to accept another woman as mother at this juncture. I appreciated his sacrifice. Not that I had a chance to react otherwise.  At the slightest opportunity, the relatives made it a point to harp on what a great father he was. 

I don’t feel guilty for looking pretty and fashionable even though it’s only a year since Daddy has gone. But I have ruffled quite a few feathers though, without any intention on my part. I have encountered the accusing looks of Daddy’s relations, I have shooed off people volunteering to stay with me – a single woman of twenty-six, you know, how can she…etc. etc. I know they mean well. But I don’t want anyone to intrude into the silence that surrounds this flat. I savour the solitude pregnant with my thoughts. I enjoy the privilege of having a cup of tea quietly before the maid comes. I like the freedom of not making my bed if I don’t want to, or let dinner be just a bowl of ready-made soup and two slices of toast. The one thing that I never slack on is to put two fresh jasmine garlands on the portraits of my parents. All these years Mum’s picture stood alone and it was Daddy’s duty to garland her. Today, his picture has joined hers. 

Also read: Fiction: Doiboki (Part II)

Daddy was  so understanding. He never let me feel the absence of a mother. During Durga puja, when other girls bought four dresses for the four days, I would always get six. He would personally select the materials and the next day the trusted family tailor- Ramu-‘kaka’, would turn up to take measurements. Even now, as I close my eyes I see his stooping figure, the round spectacles resting on his nose, and Daddy standing in front of him, instructing, “No, no, the skirt must be two inches below the knee. Make one dress with  pointed collars and the other round.’’ Soon Ramu-kaka would depart, promising to deliver the dresses in time for the festivities.  

Daddy looked so happy at these moments that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my friends would snigger at the dresses so hopelessly out of fashion. He himself would buy only a kurta or a shirt to wear on the ashtami day when he offered anjali to the goddess.

story on father daughter relationship

And then there was the matter of the hair. Agh, the plait I had to sport! Daddy would personally supervise when Mashi, the old maid who stayed with us to take care of the household, oiled my thick hair every Sunday morning. Sundays were special days. Daddy would not allow Mashi to enter the kitchen; he took great care to cook all the dishes I loved. Prawn malai curry, Pabda fish with ground mustard to accompany the aromatic gobindobhog rice. 

When the school final exam loomed ahead, Daddy always took one month’s leave from the office. To be with me to give me moral support, to ensure little things like a hot cup of milk in the evening before study hour. In the mornings it was he who jumped up as the alarm clock shrilled and then coaxed me to get up with a hot cup of coffee.

What could I do without him? I couldn’t imagine a world without his all-pervading presence. Sometimes I wondered why he didn’t go out with his friends for an adda.  For  a play or a movie perhaps. I wouldn’t have minded. God knows he made enough sacrifices. Once I had even suggested, “Daddy, don’t you have any friends? You don’t have to take me along everywhere, you know.’’

He had looked at me in a strange way. Then I saw, astonished, that his eyes filled up with tears. He hugged me and said, “Darling, it’s you I live for. Don’t ever think that I want to have a good time leaving you behind.’’

Also read: Doiboki (Final Episode)

But I want to go for a movie with my friends, I wanted to blurt out.  I was in my first year in college. I had never ever bunked classes like Meera. Sometimes when the idea flitted through my mind, I immediately snuffed it out. How could I face Daddy if he found out?

The first year in college was prickly. I felt sometimes that the girls looked at me rather strangely. Meera was the only one who seemed to be interested in me. Ironically, we made friends over a sartorial preference. I was wearing that horrendous purple salwar suit with big flowers that did nothing to my petite frame, but this new girl , Meera, said kindly, “Oh, what an unusual print!’’ 

“My father has chosen it,’’ I had replied rather defensively though I wanted to sound proud. Inwardly, I was cringing. Did Meera really mean it? Did she guess I hated the dress? But soon she was the only one with whom I could chat comfortably.

When the school final exam loomed ahead, Daddy always took one month’s leave from the office. To be with me to give me moral support, to ensure little things like a hot cup of milk in the evening before study hour. In the mornings it was he who jumped up as the alarm clock shrilled and then coaxed me to get up with a hot cup of coffee.

We, father and daughter, did everything together: movies, plays, discussing books. No friction, no financial worry for me. Nothing to distract me, not even the boys over whom silly girls like Meera, Neha, etc. lost their sleep. The boys were not up to my intellectual standard, I had decided and dismissed them from my realm of interest.

Daddy’s stomach pain was there for quite some time but I didn’t know. Mashi told me afterwards that he had forbidden her to tell me. But one day he couldn’t hide it any longer. I found it disconcerting that he had lost interest in food, something he relished. I complained to pishi, his sister.  When she came to enquire she created a hullabaloo, “Why, Somu! What’s wrong? You’re looking like a ghost. You must visit a doctor.’’

For the first time after my mother’s death, I was very afraid. Why, I screamed silently, he looked pale and gaunt indeed. Was something seriously wrong with him?  If he died, what’d happen to me? He was my whole world. 

The world turned upside down for me one day when pishi took me aside and said, holding my hands, “You are a big girl now. Besides, you are his daughter. You should know. He has liver cancer. The doctor gives two months at best.’’

holding hands
I took two months’ leave to be with him.

I had blacked out that day. As I opened my eyes, I saw mashi  and aunt fanning me. My hair was wet with water.

Strangely, I was very calm after that initial shock. My senior in the office understood and allowed me to take two months’ leave to be with him. It was actually Daddy who had panicked, “who’s going to look after you, my little girl?’’ He had cried like a baby. But I made him laugh, sharing our old private jokes. Reading to him, feeding him soup, the only thing he could swallow afterwards.

Daddy went away one early morning. I was by his side, dropping off to bouts of drowsiness. In his dying moment Daddy had clasped my hand. In fact, I had to extricate it firmly before rigor mortis set in. Was he trying to cling to me for support before facing death? Then I went to call my aunt who was sleeping in the next room.

I mourned silently, shedding a few tears. So silently that I heard the relatives whispering “It’s not good. She should cry.’’ I talked to Daddy constantly in my moments of silence, sure that he heard me and also told him things I couldn’t during his lifetime. And asked his forgiveness that though in a state of deep sorrow, I also felt a sense of relief I couldn’t admit even to myself. 

We, father and daughter, did everything together: movies, plays, discussing books. No friction, no financial worry for me. Nothing to distract me, not even the boys over whom silly girls like Meera, Neha, etc. lost their sleep. The boys were not up to my intellectual standard, I had decided and dismissed them from my realm of interest.

A month after his death when I rejected pishi’s  offer to stay with her, she was hurt. When I told mashi to retire and gave her a generous allowance for the service of so many years she looked relieved; she had wanted to return to her village home for a long time. Then I packed all my clothes in an old suitcase, took a cab to an orphanage and left it there. I gave away Daddy’s clothes to an ashram. Only the books we shared together and the records remained.

The day I went to the beauty salon and listened to the advice of the hairdresser, I constantly repeated to myself like a mantra, “Daddy, don’t mind. I love you.’’

Even now, as I look at the evening sun and touch my short silky hair, I can’t help wondering if I’ve betrayed him. He liked long hair. That’s why I never dared suggest that I wanted to cut it short. 

It’s something I have to battle with constantly. I try to make peace, rationalizing, I had given as much to Daddy as he had given to me. I hated many things but didn’t protest because he didn’t do it deliberately. Now I see that he was blind with his love for me and depended on me to sustain him in his loneliness. I was unquestioningly loyal to him when he was alive. But now I want to carry on.

No, I am not going to explain anything to Meera when I meet her for lunch next Sunday. It’s between me and Daddy. 

Images courtesy: Rawpixel, Fresherslive 

Notes:

1. Ashtami- third day in the Bengali Hindu Durga Puja festival

2. Anjali- Bengali word meaning an offering to the deity on Ashtami 

3. Mashi- traditionally means mother’s sister in Bengali; but a term also used for a close elderly woman 

4. Pishi- aunt; father’s sister in Bengali

Ranjita Biswas is an independent journalist, author and translator. She is an award winning translator of fiction and has seven published works to her credit so far. She won KATHA awards thrice. Among her translated works, “Written in Tears” (Harper Collins) won the Best Translation Prize in English from Sahitya Akademi in 2017. “The Loneliness of Hira Barua” (Pan Macmillan) won the PFC-Valley of Words award in 2021. “Dawn” (Kali for Women/Zubaan), the first book she translated of Arupa Patangia Kalita, the author of these books, was also translated into Hindi. “Areca Nut Tree and Other Stories” (Vitasta, 2022) is a selection of contemporary short stories by the new age Assamese women writers. Biswas is also an award winning writer of children’s fiction.

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