Shikha felt a strange calm after she reached her Chennai home. And she had this bizarre feeling that her father was in the house. She thought more about him in those days immediately following the seventh day function. She found herself carrying on silent conversations with him when alone in her room, which was a rare occurrence. Mama and Maria cheduthy were always around, talking to her about inconsequential things. Strangely enough, she welcomed their company. It was better than having to deal with that emptiness within. No. Not just emptiness. There was that nagging feeling of guilt too. Guilt that she had failed Philip as a wife. Worse still, a guilt at the vague feeling of relief that fate had intervened in her life to set her free from a life of emotional claustrophobia.
She kept away from the TV for fear that she might see either Philip’s handsome face smiling down at her, or his gory body from various angles. The media, obviously, didn’t believe in sanitizing!
She refrained from updating herself about the investigation. She did not want to know anything about Philip’s activities that led to his violent death. I can’t run away from it all, she told herself, but right now I can’t handle it. I have all the time in the world to deal with it, she thought wryly. Thankfully, when she was alone or when she lay awake waiting for sleep to descend upon her with that blissful oblivion, papa’s face would appear before her mind’s eye. She would talk to him and he would reply. Before the conversation progressed very far, she would drift off to sleep, and on waking up wonder if it was a dream or for real.
“I’m sorry Shikha. I should have done my homework better. My poor girl, you had to go through so much”, he seemed to say during one such dialogue with her.
“It’s ok, papa”, she replied.
She couldn’t recall the rest of the conversation as she slipped into the lethean world of slumber.
On another occasion, he said, “Whatever happened had to happen, Shikha. Nothing is an accident. God has his plans for you”. Shikha had fallen asleep and she jumped up with a start. No living person had so far dared to tell her this though her family, as a rule, always brought the divine will and plan into everything that happened. Perhaps they thought what happened to Shikha was too gruesome to explain away as the will of God.
Shikha sat up, switched on the bedside lamp and her eyes fell on the Bible. It opened on a page she had never read before. She was regular with the New Testament and the Psalms, and those books with narrative interest. That day the Holy Book opened at Sirrach 2. As Skikha read through the chapter, she was stunned at the message in it.
Accept whatever befalls you, in crushing misfortune be patient;
For in fire gold is tested, and worthy men in the crucible of humiliation.
Trust God and he will help you
It appeared as though the lines were written for her. The agnipareeksha! The crucible of humiliation! Is she the gold being put through the process of supercritical extraction? The thought brought a smile to her face. It took her mind a scene in the IIT canteen where she and Siddharth were sharing a table with a group of chemistry students who were discussing some supercritical fluid extraction. Shikha had liked the expression ‘supercritical extraction’.
“Don’t use it till you understand it properly”, Siddharth had warned her when she told him of her fascination for the expression.
“It can be used loosely when not in a chemistry context”, she had replied.
“You are incorrigible”, Siddharth had said, shaking his head indulgently. “You’d lose the world for a word”.
She closed the Bible, switched off table lamp and lay there thinking. Was it really papa talking to her from wherever he is? Or is it God’s way of reaching out to her? Where is her father now? Is he somewhere where he can feel? “We have only your welfare in mind, Shikha, whatever else you might think”. Those were almost his last words to her before he took that fateful journey to South America. I know papa, I realize that now, she told him. Besides, marrying Philip was my choice. I did it despite my gut feeling that he was not my type and that he had a sense of discomfort with himself, which was dangerous in any relationship. The decision to marry him was mine, not yours, she told him emphatically. She suddenly felt a cold wetness on the cheek and realized that tears were streaming down her face and had wet the pillow. She let them flow. Mama was not here to see it. She need not be brave before God and her papa who was with Him. The thought gave her some comfort, though she cried heartbrokenly, burying her face in the pillow.
The next day was a Wednesday. “Mama, I’m going for the novena to Our Lady Of Perpetual Succour. Coming along?”
“Just a minute. Will be ready in a jiffy”, replied Rani. “Shall I take the wheel, Shikha?” asked Rani as they walked to the garage.
“No, ma. It’s OK. I’ll drive”.
After getting home from the novena, she called Lavanya. She had cut off all communications with her two or three month before Philip’s death. Her emails had gone unanswered and Shikha would not take her calls. After Philips death, she had called but Shikha did not speak to her. It was mama who handled all the telephone calls those days and would tell her the list of those who called when she thought Shikha’s was in the right frame of mind to listen.
Lavanya was happy to hear her voice. ”Time you got back to normal life”, she said. No one else had the courage to tell her such things, not even her mama. Shikha had withdrawn into a shell after Philips death and Rani was not sure how to handle her. Her siblings and relatives advised her to take Shikha to a counselor, but Rani thought Shikha should be given time to recover before she sought professional help. Rani was happy when Shikha decided to resume her weekly novena, and more so that she asked Rani to accompany her. Hearing her talk to Lavanya, Rani felt relieved. Time is doing its work, she thought. No great healer than Time.
Ruminating over sharp exchanges she had with her father, Shikha remembered papa’s suggestion that she do research, instead of picking up a job. It now appeared to be an excellent idea. She knew her own inclination to lose herself into the world of books and of her sense of belonging in the academia.
“I’m going to register for PhD”, she announced to her mother the next day at the dining table. Rani looked at her for a moment and her eyes filled with tears. Startled, Shikha asked, “What’s wrong mama?”
“Nothing”, she said wiping her eyes with a tissue. “It’s just that I’m so happy, relieved.”
Lavanya suggested that she join CDS in Trivandrum. “It’s a good center. Besides, you want to be away from Chennai, no?”
Rani too thought it was a good idea. Trivandrum was a quiet and sane place, with a good academic atmosphere. Shikha would be happy there.
Then one day, Lavanya called her and asked her in an excited voice to switch on the TV quickly and watch the Asianet News channel.
“What is it?” asked Shikha alarmed.
“Nothing to get scared about. Quick, switch it on”.
Shikha switched on the TV in her room. And she saw Siddharth! His face filled the screen and he was smiling at the reporter who had put a question to him. “I think India is a gold mine now.” He was saying. “That’s what made me decide to return and join the software company here”.
Siddharth, apparently, had become a celebrity! After being scooped up by a giant Multi national company in the USA and having worked for them for the contractual one year period, he returned to India to join as a partner in a software company which was in financial doldrums after the recession hit the US. In a matter of months, he turned things around, causing its ratings and the share value to skyrocket.
He appeared to be the same, judging from what she saw of him in the interview. Confident without being over confident, and no airs or pretensions. A low profile, confident young man who knows what he is talking about, and who knows what he wants from life and goes after it with a single minded energy, was how she would describe him, Shikha thought. Yes, a man driven by his cerebrum, she thought ruefully.
After that day when she saw him first on the TV, his became a very visible face in Malayalam channels. The Malayalam media went berserk over him and vied with each other to give coverage to his under thirty story of success. The national English channels too did stories on him and he was the guest in several primetime talk shows in those channels.
One day, Rani sprang a surprise question on her. “Are you in touch with Siddharth?” she asked.
Startled Shikha looked at her saying “No, most certainly not! What a question!” She was indignant. What does she expect me to do, she thought. Go after this man after he became a celebrity, this man who discarded her unceremoniously after his family was spurned like a dog by hers. And why should he take any interest in her, a widow, when he has a whole world of eligible and attractive young women out there to choose from? Mama is shameless if she wants me to reestablish contact with him with the hope that we can pick up from where we left off! . Besides, I’ve had enough of relationships in my life. First Siddharth, then her husband – both turned sour, she thought bitterly.
“Am better off on my own,” she told herself emphatically.