Tara opened her eyes in the drawing room of her two bedroom apartment in posh suburbs of South Mumbai. The first thought that struck her was of her daughter. Oh, how she wished that all this was just a bad dream and her doll would just come running and cajole her into tying her hair in the adorable twin ponytail pleading that she was getting late for school. As the mortifying fear of her daughter’s disappearance gripped her, she wished that this was just one of those days when she accidentally fell asleep on the couch working on her laptop and had an awful dream. The cuckoo clock struck 8 and sent numbing sensations to all the happy memories that her mind was trying to conjure up in order to fight the impending ordeal of her daughter’s disappearance.
She sprang up from the sofa in hopes to get through the chiasma of impending doom and supposed nightmare- as the wait itself was gripping her by the throat and eating away on her heart. Her prayers went unanswered as her husband Shekhar Dutta’s tense countenance ushered her into the waking world. Before Tara could speak anything, she could read in Shekhar’s eyes all the pain, all the worry that riddled her heart too. It was as if both of them were looking into a mirror and the gush of exact same emotions had brought both of their thoughts to a perpetual halt; with choked throats, they shared a glance. Tara, the less aware of the scenario of the two, having been unconscious for a good ten minutes, dropped the heaviest question in the room- “Where is Roohi?” Any other day, a terse question with such an obvious reply would have returned a snide remark from Shekhar but, today was different. It was worse than the days when they would snap at each other at every little thing which was so hard to imagine for the Duttas who had almost resigned to fate and had readied themselves for a divorce and had assumed that the worst had already befallen them.
Their guilt of Roohi’s suffering due to their personal rifts was already gnawing away at the very fabric of their being. Both Shekhar and Tara, having been cut-off from their families, knew very well, the pain of an offspring who feels unwanted. Tara wasn’t Tara Dutta always. She used to be Tara Malhotra, the confident Punjabi girl of Shekhar Dutta’s dreams, the girl who brought Shekhar, the college favourite, on his knees right in the middle of the campus. Shekhar too, was not this bald, lean guy with a French beard and a smile that denoted more resignation to fate than delight; he was Shekhar- the poet. His couplets in Urdu were returned by sighs from women; when his fingers strummed the guitar, the whole campus used to drop everything they were doing and gather to listen.
All these now seem more like flashes from the past life instead of things of past; Shekhar’s guitar is long gone and so is Tara’s smile. Well, the smile makes cameos in the little innocent questions of Roohi who was still unclear about the word ‘divorce’. In Roohi’s little mind, she had defined “divorce” as some awful thing which will solve her parents’ problems but will make a scary monster named “Divos” come live with them. Roohi never asked anyone about “Divos” because she knew saying his name was bad luck. She was worried as to where would they make the monster sleep? She already had enough monsters under her bed and knew that “Divos” would just make other monsters more ruthless. “No, they should not get ‘Divos’!”– she used to think in her mind and resolve firmly to stop them. At a subconscious level, she knew that the word meant something else but was afraid to ask as she was sure the new meaning would be even more horrible.
“Where is Roohi?!!” Tara’s question still loomed in the room, now having ballooned to gigantic proportions after being repeated for more than three times. Shekhar, regaining his composure, trying to think of the answer to that question as if his life depended on it, could only say, “She is missing. I have looked everywhere.” with an apparent fear that was unchained through his own words. That fear was now gushing in his veins, popping through his eyes and was visible in his quivering voice. Tara stood up and picked up her phone. There was something in the way she took charge that Shekhar’s manhood felt belittled again. This time he let her make the calls and sat back on the sofa; he had practiced the art of playing the second fiddle so perfectly thus far that it seemed natural to him. To be true to his own self, he wanted to call the police but on some level, he wanted Tara to come to her senses and take the decision herself. He was unsure whether it was the right thing to do for some reason.
Tara looked at the frail, unsure Shekhar whose simpering made her want to rip him apart but, she understood his dilemma too and reassured herself that this time was not to feel angry but be supportive of each other. As the phone rang in the police station, she wondered whether this was the same Shekhar she had met in college.
It was her first day in college and as Tara Malhotra made her way in the campus, her eyes met with a charming stranger with a guitar. He had the charm of drug-addict, bad-boy rockstar. His curly hair, unkempt beard and mysterious smile made it impossible for Tara to shift her gaze in any other direction but the one in which he was headed. She had dreamed for a rebel. A bad boy who is just sufficiently bad that can be fixed; a guy with whom she can share her ambitions without getting judged. She looked at him and saw her conduit to salvation. She had rebelled against her parents to marry him. The same guy sat sipping water, simpering like a mouse on the sofa as she called the police and asked to register her complaint. She felt her temples turning crimson red with frustration but she focused on the task at hand.
As Shekhar sat back on the sofa, he breathed deeply for the first time since the shriek he had heard in the garden. He had run out to see his wife fainted. A sixth sense or maybe the fact that Tara is not one of those faint at heart made him suddenly conclude that something was wrong with Roohi. He had run out of the apartment building premises for almost a half a mile in search of Roohi. He had sent the guard on the lookout too. Neighbours who had rarely seen this measly recluse come out of his flat were just amused at the sight of him shouting. A friendly neighbourhood lady finally joined in the search and also helped Shekhar in taking Tara inside the apartment. It had been so long that Shekhar had held Tara that he had forgotten how to hold her. With a worried, weak heart, as he laid his gaze on Tara’s motionless limbs, he held her fingers and felt the vulnerability returning in them after all these years.
Tara Malhotra had a strong confident personality but it was powerless in front of the poet’s charm. Her vulnerability was one thing that had attracted Shekhar. She’d make him feel in charge and he felt recognized and appreciated. As her admirer, Tara had told him that he should pursue his dream of being an author and Shekhar saw the look in her eyes which meant that she wanted to be his pillar. A pillar that he had sought all his life. Ever since the first slap he had gotten from his father for choosing to study Arts over Science, he had been on the lookout for another pillar. In Tara’s big beautiful eyes, sharp, shapely nose, delicate, rosy fingers- Shekhar felt validated again. He wanted to be an author again.
But as soon as Tara had come to her senses, even her smell turned alien. Shekhar knew that Tara would take charge as soon as she wakes up. He sat back on his sofa and sipped the water from a glass gently to muffle the screaming monsters inside his head. He knew that there was a bigger worry at hand, their beloved daughter, the only thing that held them together was missing.
Next, Shekhar and Tara were sitting in the police station as Inspector Tawde sat to listen to their complaint. Tawde, who had seen many such cases when the child would just go out to play and the parents would come running to lodge an FIR was understandably skeptical. “Are you sure, she is not just out playing with some neighbourhood kid?” he said without looking at them and looking at his paperwork instead. Tara was furious, her swollen eyes and nose red from crying had added to the effect as she blamed Tawde for incompetence. Shekhar who was mellowed by then, asked Tara to relax which further infuriated Tara. “Are you really Roohi’s father? How can you ask me to ‘relax’? No, I will not ‘relax’, Shekhar Dutta!”- she cried almost breaking into tears. Tawde was stoic and unperturbed having seen such cases by the dozen daily. He switched to Marathi and asked the couple to make some calls and ascertain that their daughter was really missing before lodging the complaint. Shekhar gently explained to the inspector how they live in a gated apartment building with a guard and also how he had created a ruckus in the building and woken up everyone as soon as he figured out something was wrong. Tara’s crying had stopped and she looked up at Shekhar’s face with a hint of admiration for the first time. She didn’t know what all had transpired in the ten minutes in which she had blacked out. Shekhar looked at Tara with a calm reassurance and held her hand. Tara wanted to hug Shekhar but held back and just placed her head on his shoulder. Tawde finally wrote their FIR and held out the pen for them to sign. Tara took the pen in her hands at once and then handed it to Shekhar.
To be continued…
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