The distress phone call from Mrs Joshi in the middle of the night was nothing unusual. Could he come over to examine a little boy suffering from acute high fever?
Sunil looked out of the window to catch a final glimpse of the Kennedy International Airport, fast receding below. The blinding bright lights lining the tarmac, the sparkling lights of the faintly silhouetted imposing airport building, the bejeweled beauty of New York city in the twilight of approaching dawn — he wanted to imprint them all in his mind.
“Leaving home after a long time?” asked a soft, musical voice by his side. Sunil turned to see the hazy frame of a beautiful Indian woman, through misty eyes.
Embarrassed, he quickly pressed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger and gave an awkward smile. “I am leaving behind 18 years of my life,” he replied.
The woman’s questioning eyes prompted Sunil to explain. “My parents returned to India five years ago but I stayed on to finish my medical school. I don’t remember anything of India. I left it when I was eight.
I thought I had left it for good. But now my parents are growing old and they want their only son near them. So I guess I have to close my American chapter.”
The woman looked faintly amused at his desperate helpless tone. “But it might be challenging to discover a new land and new life,” she said reassuringly.
Sunil wasn’t too sure. His decision to abide by his parents’ wishes had been treated with disdain and ridicule by his American friends. His expatriate Indian friends had tried to instill fear. “You want to return to a country of starving millions, which is plagued by a thousand deadly diseases, which is politically falling apart? Are you Father Teresa?” He had been warned of a prejudiced orthodox society, where caste and religion determined your identity, where western liberalism was an elitist pastime.
Vaishali was a patient listener. Though she did not try to wave away Sunil’s fears, she quietly gave him a glimpse of strong roots of family bondings, of neighbourly societies, of the Indian way of looking at things. She became the perfect sounding board Sunil was searching for. The two soon got into some lively debates.
“What is wrong in a live-in relationship?” Sunil asked, referring to his own two-year relationship with Chelsea in New York. “It is better that way isn’t it when you have the scope to figure out whether you can enter into a long-time commitment or not. Or else you are free to walk off.”
“There is nothing wrong in it. But the complete absence of commitment gives you an element of inflexibility. You are not willing to cut corners to make the relationship work. What it leaves you with is pain and heartbreak. In a marriage, the partners at least try their best to stick on,” Vaishali argued. As a research scholar who had gone to the United States for eight months to finish the final part of her thesis on ‘Portrayal of women in modern American Literature’, Vaishali had seen the angst of the emotionally insecure American woman from close.
“In India marriage is oppressive, isn’t it? I mean, in America people are used to having relationships outside marriage. But in India it is sacrilegious,” Sunil egged on.
“It is not a question of sacriledge. It is a question of honouring a commitment. If you can’t do that, walk out. But why carry on a farce of a marriage,” Vaishali posed animatedly.
The debates raged on and on, both of them ploughing their own furrows in absolutely opposite directions. If Sunil held up the banner of western free societies, Vaishali clung on to roots of Indian values. Sunil loved baseball, Vaishali thought it to be kid’s play in front of the artistry of cricket. Sunil’s favourite bestsellers were pooh-poohed by Vaishali who swore by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie.
Slowly, a new world of India was opening up before his eyes. Sunil was not unhappy to lose most of the arguments. He was just scared to let Vaishali stop. He loved listening to her when she spoke, her dark eyes flashing spiritedly above her pert nose in the heart-shaped dusky face. Though he let her win, he knew in his heart that his liberal outlook was way ahead in times than the conventionalism of Vaishali.
Over the next four months, Vaishali Prabhakar became inseparable part of Sunil’s thoughts. As a successful US-returned doctor with a plum job in New Delhi’s best known corporate hospital, Sunil Arora could not have asked for a better comeback.
But though he immersed himself in his work, his mind kept on replaying their encounter on the flight. Sunil kept rephrasing his arguments in his mind, over and over again, determined to win the next time they met. But would they ever? He didn’t know. He kicked himself the umpteenth time for forgetting to take her address.
The distress phone call from Mrs Joshi in the middle of the night was nothing unusual. Could he come over to examine a little boy suffering from acute high fever? Sunil drove the short distance to the Joshi’s house thinking about Vaishali. He knew he loved her. He knew he wanted to marry her. He was sure she would not refuse. But he did not know if he would ever find her again.
Mrs Joshi, whose son he had treated once earlier, ushered him inside. Sunil stopped dead in his tracks. Sitting on a chair was Vaishali. And lying near her on the bed was a small boy of about five years, covered with a blanket with a damp cloth on his forehead to bring down the fever. Vaishali was just as surprised to see Sunil.
Gathering his wits together, Sunil examined Vaishali’s son, wrote out a prescription and quietly stepped towards the door, a hundred different thoughts muddling his mind. All the things he had been preparing to tell Vaishali when he met her had evaporated. He had not expected her to be a widow with a son living alone in an apartment next to the Joshis.
Sunil desperately wanted to turn back and say, “I don’t care about your past Vaishali. I want to be your present and build a future with you. I will be a father to your son.” But his strength seemed to have drained out of him all of a sudden. He would not be her first love. His parents will not accept it. This was India. Would he ever be able to adopt her son? The liberator was trapped in a cage he did not know he had built around himself.
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