Ch1: 'No Sympathy For The Devil'
Kate couldn’t sleep that night. Sleep evaded her when she jumped into her bed at 12 am, and even after two hours, there was no trace of slumber. She lay comfortably on her bed in her favourite batman pyjamas and stared at the spot on the ceiling. Her room—oddly similar to the one she had growing up—was sparingly furnished with a single bed, a wooden wardrobe and a wobbly, old desk - furniture pieces that she had bought in a garage sale. If she had ever wished to replace these in the past, the thought was lost on her today. They were getting the job done, weren’t they? Except this bed - this was a waste. “I should have just bought the mattress,” she sighed into her not-so-fluffy and rather uncomfortable pillow. Shifting to the supine position with her hands folded under her chin, she looked through the window in exasperation and gazed into the cloudless sky.
It was her daily theatre—work for 10 hours every day (12, if lucky); cook, clean, and take care of odd chores around the house; and hit the bed at around 12 am, praying to God tiredness will wear off. Some days it did; most days it didn’t. Not before the wee hours of the morning anyway. During this limbo, she planned the next day, made lists of things to do in her head, even rehearsed what to say to people. This year it was Naman, who had sent her a text at around 12, asking if she was free for coffee on Tuesday, and she conveniently forgot. Relatively harmless, her 31-year-old colleague didn’t take no for an answer and asked her out every month. Even if he weren’t a potbellied annoying uncle, she still wouldn’t have said yes—he wasn’t right for any 21-year-old girl, let alone her. She would have to confront him one day and say it plainly!
Things I need to do today
She stopped mid-sentence in her head as her phone beeped. If ever she would have felt surprised to get a text at 2.15 in the night, tonight was not such an occasion. It had been half-anticipation, half-apprehension that kept her awake today. She closed her eyes for a second before retrieving her phone from the table on her left. In her efforts, she knocked off the dimly-lit lamp that was sitting complacently on the table with the back of her hand and didn’t even flinch when the cord came loose, and the room wallowed in darkness. She read the text in half a second, left the lamp lying on the side and pulled the covers on her.
She went into a deep slumber almost instantly and unsurprisingly, woke up in the middle of a nightmare - sweaty and weary.
It was the same dream she always had: her mother’s death two years ago. Her stepfather’s voice still echoed in her ears; she could still feel his hand grabbing her wrist and pulling her out of her room where she was getting ready to go out to look for, ironically, a house, to move out. It was a fine Sunday morning, in April—a fine day to start a new life indeed.
At six feet and with a medium built structure, Kate’s father, Francis, was an imposing man. Kate was his daughter by matrimony. Though Kate had her mother’s black hair, five-foot, six-inch height and heart-shaped face, she didn’t have her slender figure. She had always been on the heavier side, even when she was a child, but at 60 kilogram, she was still no match for her bulky and rather angry stepfather.
Clasping her ruthlessly, he dragged her from her room towards the front door. Kate didn’t protest. She knew it was going to happen soon now that her mother was gone. Nonetheless, the surprise still shook her and numbed her mind. She could have asked him to be gentle, could have told him that she was leaving soon anyway. She didn’t. It was a small house, and it didn’t even take him more than a minute to throw her out of her ear. She landed up on her arse on the front porch. Kate’s meagre belongings, dumped in a black suitcase, followed. Dishevelled, she looked up at him as he ordered one last time, “DON’T COME BACK!”
She pulled herself up, dusted herself off, grabbed her suitcase and walked away from the house that had been her personal hell for more than a decade and a half. She was five when her recently divorced mother married a widower, Francis. Her father, she was told, was a complete bastard who abused her mother. Francis was her new daddy, but she soon found out that he was no better. “Sshh… don’t say it,” her mother had told her one night when Kate begged her to leave him. “We have nowhere to go. Do as he says.” So she did, for years. She stayed out of his sight, left to school before he woke up, came back home and locked herself in her room (or in their neighbour’s house), and didn’t step out even when asked by her half-brother and half-sister. Now her mother was gone, her siblings were away, and she was homeless.
She took solace in the fact that at least Francis was not abusive. He didn’t ever touch her but then again, it was never needed. He was cold and ruthless—his shrill voice still rang in her ears; reminded her of the time he caught her sneaking out of her room at night when she was 14, to watch TV in the hall with her mother and brother. Her stepfather, she knew, would be in his room, working or sleeping. Perfect opportunity to spend some time with her family, she thought, as she tiptoed out of her room and gaily walked to the living room, passing the kitchen. Before she could enter the hall, her father’s voice stopped her short, and she turned around to face him. Wearing a grey night suit, he still looked as fierce as he did in a three-piece—his eyes black as the night and cold as a winter morning. Years later, she watched Stepfather and couldn’t get the thought of Francis killing her that night out of her head. She had these nightmares almost every day.
“What are you doing out of your room?” he yelled with no concern about anyone hearing him. They lived in the four-bedroom apartment alone. He had no family. His wife, Kate’s mom, would never dare to interfere. By now, it was as true as her existence that she was on her own.
“I wanted to watch TV with Mom and kids,” she managed to squeak.
“Go to your room and don’t forget your place. GO!” He screamed.
Disobeying him meant no coming out of the room for a week and an unhappy mother. He would go to her and scream at her for bringing Kate in to his house, even though he knew what he was marrying into. Nonetheless, Kate wasn’t his and he made sure everyone remembered that. She wasn’t allowed to go out with her family when they were invited to social gatherings or marriages, she wasn’t allowed to attend her brother’s birthday parties, and she wasn’t allowed to breathe the air her mother and siblings breathed in. Even dinners were done separately, with Kate in her room and rest of them outside, giggling in the dining room. She wasn’t a part of any of it, so she made herself scarce. This little act of rebellion could cost her TV time or, God forbid, her phone. With unshed tears of separation, she marched to her room and switched on her own TV. It wasn’t a bad way to live—she had everything she needed and things that she didn’t, including her own TV, a laptop, a smartphone, a study table, and even a double bed. Not her family though; that she had to adjust without. She mindlessly flipped through the channels and fell asleep with the TV still on. Her mother, as was her habit, came to check on her later at night, after Francis had fallen asleep, and turned it off. Kate always knew when she entered like a thief, trying to be as hushed as possible, not for her sleeping daughter’s benefit but for the fear of waking up her husband in the next room. Why she didn’t leave him, Kate didn’t know. It wasn’t like he loved her mother or cared about his children.
But now Francis was dead, she thought as she walked to the kitchen and gulped down a glass of water. She saw her face in the mirror on the hall while turning back to the room. Her face wasn’t the same—she had lost 18 kilogram in a year and a half after she moved out, partly due to melancholy and partly due to starvation. Her hollow cheeks were not as pronounced to someone looking at her for the first time, but almost everyone had that repulsive reaction to the pimple breakouts on her face, which eventually faded with time.
Now, she had a job; not a good one, but one that kept her warm at night and a roof over her head. Living in her own studio apartment, which may be shabby compared to her previous home, but it was hers, nonetheless. She bought it with the money her grandparents had left her secretly; for, they knew this might happen one day. She was alive, she was well-fed, and she had a place to call her home.
Everything changed again tonight. Francis was dead; the text from her brother confirmed it, and she would be able to leave it all behind. Closure finally, she thought as she sighed in relief, and sauntered towards her bedroom for a good life’s rest and a good life’s beginning.
Ch2: 'Tell Me A Fable'
It was hard to imagine how a class of 15 five-year-olds could create such a ruckus. Kabir smiled as he saw two teachers trying to settle down the kids and failing terribly. He had just entered the room, casually dressed in a blue jeans and white t-shirt, with his story books in hand, when a group of young boys and girls broke into a giggle. They had been sketching all over the walls while their teacher attended to a girl in a ponytail. Two boys on a corner started a chasing game in the room, and another teacher had to intervene to break their run. Damn, these kids were adorable!
One of the teachers, Parul, spotted him and smiled ruefully. With a wave of hand and a shrug, he stepped inside, and seeing his imposing presence or simply a tall stranger in a room full of dwarfs, the kids quieted down considerably. Parul finally succeeded in seating them all. Realising that her work was done, the other lady took her cue to exit.
He walked to the teacher’s desk, behind which was a white board, and stacked his books on the table, next to a closed attendance register. “Hello, kids.”
Parul walked up to him and introduced him. He rather liked the young teacher clad in a pink t-shirt and jeans. She had a sweet voice, exactly like that of a nursery teacher, and clearly loved these tiny human beings. “Kids, say hello to Kabir Sir. He writes stories, and today he will be reading a story for you.”
The kids went on to say “Hello” as soon as she finished her sentence. After doing that bit, Parul strolled to a bean bag at the back of the room. Her expression said, “The floor is yours.”
Kabir was fascinated by the small, colourful room. There were small round tables and wooden chairs for the little ones, and he could imagine these little ones in tuxedos and cocktail dresses, attending an award ceremony. The walls were filled with drawings, so it looked as if it was a four-sided drawing book. Erase and draw—now that’s an idea! Surely it wasn’t the case when he was in nursery in this school.
With the intention to mingle with the kids, he walked to where Parul was sitting and dragged a green bean bag to sit with the kids. Then he picked his books from the desk and settled comfortably, or as comfortable as a six-foot man can be on a mid-sized fluff chair. This was the best part of his job—he thought, surrounded by children, who sat in rapt attention as he regaled tales of his imaginary characters. He wrote simple stories that made kids laugh, and seeing that innocent laughter was most rewarding. The two favourites of kids, out of his 13 characters, were trouble-making bunnies, Brownie and Cookie. He read from his latest story, which hadn’t been printed yet, and amused them with tales of their menaces. However, he also ensured that nothing went out of hand and that kids also learnt small lessons in life.
When he had started publishing his stories, parents often complained that he gave the kids wrong idea. His friend Suman once complained, “Kabir, our kids imitate your characters and get into trouble. Last night, my son was running like your bunny friend in the house, refusing to eat until I caught him. I don’t have time for all this, honestly.”
“So you should have just caught him! Get a little active, Suman.” It was a logical reply, but Suman had been offended beyond belief.
He told every parent who would listen to that that there was no harm in making a little mischief as long as they weren’t hurting anyone. Wasn’t Dennis one of the most beloved characters in the world? “The problem is that you need to teach them some good things every now and then. Respect your elders, listen to your parents, do your homework—these sorts of things?” Another whiner was his sister. “Kids are impressionable, and you can’t expect them to understand these are just stories. I know you want to be realistic, but you also need to be responsible.” She explained, as she fed crushed apple to her 2-year-old son.
So now whenever his bunnies made mischief, they were punished. Whenever they did something good for anyone, they were rewarded. The best part was that kids could relate to his stories, and he was content with that. Parents were no longer after his life; that didn’t hurt him (or his sales) either.
Life was good indeed. He also appreciated all the lady love—a tall, handsome, sensitive guy was always in demand. Too bad, his mother was always trying to get him married to his girlfriends. That was his only problem. Not his mom, whom he adored, but the fact that the only purpose of her life was to get her 30-year-old son tied to a woman. He had no commitment phobia, no aversion to kids, and no problems with the institution to marriage—he just didn’t want to get married. Full stop.
Ch3: 'When A Friend Arrives'
It was almost 4 o’clock when Kate stepped inside the classroom and found the kids packing up after a long day. Little Hearts was a primary day boarding school, not even five minutes away from her home, and she was forever glad that she had moved here after her daughter was born. It was a good neighbourhood with lots of young couples, and Aria had lots of friends to play with.
“I hope I’m not late,” she asked the teacher who smiled in return.
“No, in fact you’re one of the first few to arrive. I’ll get Aria for you. She went to the washroom with Seema.”
“How was she today?”
“She is doing very well but I should tell you, she asked a rather odd question today.”
She flinched as Parul told her that Aria was asking some girl in her class about her father. Kate’s little girl was growing up, and she knew she was confused about her father. She thanked Parul, who smiled again as she moved on to talk to other parents.
Kate noticed Aria the moment she came to the classroom escorted by a staff member. Rather than coming to her or even acknowledging her presence, she went to the man with his back to Kate, leaning on the teacher’s table. He was the author, who came to read the kids stories, she realised. She could hear them both conversing even halfway across the room.
“I will, Aria. Thank you for the suggestion.” He was telling her.
“And make the mommy to be a beautiful princess. Like Cinderella!”
“Sure. And the daughter will be as pretty as you, also in a ponytail.”
Aria was gushing at his words. Her shy little darling was talking to a man her mother hardly knew. With another lecture on not to talk to strangers in her head, she marched towards them.
Kabir instantly noticed that Aria was such a sweet little darling. In a pink Barbie t-shirt and white skirt, she was an epitome of all that was innocent in this world. Her round face lit up when she smiled and her big, brown eyes shone with intelligence. She came to him to ask him to write about a princess with mommy and daddy. “And the daddy must always come home,” she requested.
Parents had started coming in to collect their wards, and Aria said she was waiting for her mommy. The moment the word left her mouth, a young woman in a black blazer and trousers called out the girl’s name. Aria beamed at the woman who was sitting behind him. He saw the kid hug her mom as he turned around, and the woman knelt down and kissed Aria on the cheek affectionately, and then stood up to face him. Assessing him, she said, “Hi, I’m Aria’s mom.”
Then he saw her face, and it dawned on him: he knew this woman, almost too well. “Hi, Kate.”
Ch4: 'New Connections'
She stared at him closely, clearly trying to place him. When nothing came to mind, she admitted, “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”
“I’m not certain how you could not. You did try to break my arm once.” Surely, she couldn’t forget how she, after getting a cue from his sister, hit him with a bat. His bat!
“Kabir?” She looked surprised and happy in equal parts, and he remembered little Kate, not much older than Aria, following his sister around their house.
“The very same.” He said as he returned her smile.
“How are you? Oh my God, you are a writer?”
“Ecstatic, now that I’ve met my sister’s minion, and her little one,” he said lovingly stroking Aria’s hair. “You have such a cute daughter. But when did you get married? I don’t suppose even Sasha knows.”
As she opened her mouth to say something, her gaze fell on Aria. She asked her to collect her things, and Aria ran off to get her bag.
“I’m not married.” She finally said, looking at her daughter gathering her colours, her books, and putting them in her bag.
Well, what else could he say? She was either divorced or a widow. He surely couldn’t ask her what the case was in a classroom full of students, teachers and school staff. While he was mulling over it, she continued: “Don’t look so forlorn. I know it’s been a long time, but I really need to run now.” She rummaged through her handbag and pulled out a business card. “Here’s my number. Why don’t you come for dinner sometime? And, maybe bring my childhood hero with you?”
“Sasha would love to come, I’m sure. In fact, she’s here in Delhi for a few days.”
“Yeah, I heard she moved to Mumbai and married a hotelier. I hope she’s happy.”
“Very, but I’ll let her tell you all about it.” He read her card and raised his eyebrows up in question, “You’re an independent PR consultant?”
Aria came running with her backpack on her back, with her ponytail swinging behind. Kate held her daughter’s hand lovingly, and answered, “I was working with a PR firm, but when she came, I had to make some adjustments.”
Her smile didn’t waver as she invited him for lunch on Saturday and left, with Aria in tow. Kabir had a series of flashbacks, as he watched her leave—the one he never forgot even after all these years was Kate sitting outside her flat on the stairs, waiting for someone to come back home and let her in. She was just 10yearsold, still in her school dress, with her backpack and water bottle settled in a corner outside the door. At 15, Kabir understood how world worked, and not all parents were like his, so he was extra nice to this too-serious-for-her-age girl.
“Hey Kate, what are you doing outside?”
“No one is home. They left me alone.” He could tell that she had been crying.
“No problem. Come up. Sasha didn’t go to school today, so you can watch TV with her.”
She instantly perked up, and after a round of “he won’t like it” (he being her jackass stepfather), she acquiesced. Kate spent the rest of the afternoon in his house, one of the many occasions, if he recalled correctly, but no one at his home seemed to mind. They adored the little girl ever since she moved downstairs when her mother married Francis. Everyone in the building knew how often they left her to her own devices, even her mother. Sasha, who was three years elder to her, always tried to include her in all her games. Kate’s face would lit up like a Christmas tree whenever Sasha and his mother let her participate in inconsequential activities, from cooking to cleaning, and she never liked to go back home.
Coming out of his reverie, he saw that all the kids were gone now. Parul was standing in a corner, looking inside the register he had seen on the desk before. He went to say bye to her and schedule the next reading in a few weeks.
“So, the circus is over.”
Parul beamed at him, like he was a hero of some kind, and he felt that the feeling was mutual—anyone who managed kids so devotedly deserved a standing ovation.
“Yes,” she sighed in relief.
“You want to get coffee?” she asked coyly, as they exited the class together.
“I’d love to.”
Ch5: 'The Story Of Her Life'
As he walked into Kate’s house, Kabir had an almost surreal feeling—never in his life had he imagined that he would see this serious girl again, much less have lunch at her home. He watched Natasha hug Kate and introduce herself to Aria. The five-year-old, however, was all eyes for him. Her big eyes stared at him and a smile tugged at her lips. She looked nothing like Kate, he noticed. Her face was heart-shaped, eyes black as charcoal, and she had puffy pink cheeks. Kate, at this age, looked pale; her big, brown eyes were sad, and she was too thin.
He went on his knees to look straight into the eyes of the little girl, saving her the trouble of craning her neck to see his head on a 6-foot tall structure towering over her.
“This is for you, cutie!” He said as he gave her a big bar of Dairy Milk, and she smiled in return.
Kate said, “Aria, what do we say when someone gives us something?”
“Thank you, Kabir uncle.” Aria said and gave him a hug. Dressed in a floral pink dress that came to her knees, she looked much like the Barbie she had in her hand. A warm feeling enveloped Kabir as he returned her hug.
Most of the lunch and during the evening, Aria was at his side, showing him her toys and asking about his stories. Aria had little to no male influence in her life, and she was fascinated by a man who wrote stories that she loved. Her mother had explained to her when they were getting ready that he was her uncle and Sasha her aunt. But she wanted him to be her daddy! When she told her mom that, she explained to her that he was not her daddy but didn’t tell her who was. Why did her friends have a daddy and she didn’t?
“You got a daddy, Kabir uncle?” She asked him while they were all having dessert. Aria loved chocolate ice cream but her mom didn’t want her to catch cold, so she picked up another chocolate piece from her bowl that Kabir had broken for her.
“Yes, Aria.” He replied looking at her squarely. All conversation had stopped; Kate and Sasha were listening intently, too.
She looked so forlorn when she made the obvious announcement that Kate’s heart broke. She wasn’t enough; Aria needed a dad. She was beginning to realise that everyone around her talked about their fathers, while she had no idea where hers was.
“But you have a great mom,” he exclaimed, trying to salvage the situation.
“You know, I have a son. He’s older than you,” Sasha chipped in.
“Where is he?”
“He’s with his nani right now.”
“He got a daddy, too?”
“Yes, baby. But his daddy is in Mumbai for work. Sometimes daddies have to stay away from babies, because they have so many things to do. But I keep him company, as your mommy takes care of you.”
That appeased Aria, and she got busy with her chocolate. She later showed the guests her paintings and even drew a picture for Kabir. “I’ll hang it in my room,” he said to her.
Kate had displayed her baby’s work all over the house, but she hardly ever got those 1000-watt grin that Aria gave Kabir.
Kate picked up a sleepy Aria from the couch, where she was almost asleep on Kabir’s shoulder. Not excited about missing a moment of Kabir’s visit, she made an angry noise but quieted down when Kabir promised he would visit her again. Sasha and Kabir were still perched on the sofa in the hall when Kate came back.
It was just a week ago that she saw Kabir at the school, and now they were all exchanging stories like time hadn’t passed and they were still kids. But they weren’t.
Sasha knew Kate was lying about her one-night stand the moment she confessed the story. She knew when this girl was lying; she recounted numerous instances when Kate had boldly declared she wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t scared, she didn’t care. That girl didn’t trust anyone with her secrets but now was not the time to prod her. Instead, she asked her about the time they had left their building and moved away.
“Francis was getting flak from other members of the society. He announced he had sold the house, and we were going to move.” What she didn’t tell them was that she had protested fiercely and he had knocked the wind out of her when he slapped her the first and only time, as her mom and brother and sister silently watched the exchange.
She told them about their mother’s death and that she moved into her grandparents’ house much later. Kabir felt something snapped inside him when he learnt that Kate had to work a 12-hour shift at McD to support herself, and study at night for her correspondence degree. She attended weekend classes and worked overtime for some petty cash. The girl never had an easy moment in her life, had she? He was proud of the 30-year-old woman sitting across him on a chesterfield chair, dressed in a white full-length skirt and a cream blouse. The terrified little girl he had met all those years ago was replaced by this strong, independent and beautiful woman.
Sasha noticed the expression of complete awe on her brother’s face and naked glee on Kate’s as Kabir complimented her. Wait till she told mom about this.
Ch6: 'Secret's Out!'
Kate was waiting for Kabir at a coffee shop near her house. Aria was at the school, and the duo was going to pick her up at 4. She was seated on her favourite seat by the window, observing the street outside when Kabir occupied the chair next to her.
“Sorry, I’m late.” He started, as Kate faced away from the window and smiled at him.
She picked up her phone from the table and looked at the time before replying, “I’m early, I suppose.”
“I know,” he said, shaking his head in resignation, “but knowing you, I should have left earlier than I did.”
The place they had chosen, Café 29, was a small café, with seating for just 20 people. It was the perfect spot to catch a lunch, Kate had told Kabir, and he could see why. There was nothing too special about the eatery—but it had a quirky décor with steel chairs painted in red and green, walls painted with funny caricatures, and stupid names for 29 dishes like ‘Rasta Pasta’ for spaghetti and ‘Gora Naan’ for pizza. They had the signature pasta dish and ravioli for lunch, and then they ordered coffee. Leisurely sipping their beverage, they continued their conversation about Aria’s school, Sasha’s son, and Kabir’s stories.
“So, tell me about this Ankita I keep hearing about. Who was she?” Abruptly Kate asked Kabir and disturbed the mood they had set in the past hour. She saw his face change; a strange expression came over him—one that she couldn’t identify. Pain? Embarrassment? Anger?
“My girlfriend? Why would you want to know about her?” He said stiffly, keeping his mug back on the table without taking a sip.
“Well, Sasha said you almost got married, and that Aunty really adored her.”
“Mom adores everyone I date. Don’t think she won’t get an idea of you and I,” he said haughtily.
“What?” Kate was rendered speechless. Sasha didn’t tell her anything, she thought in indignation.
“That’s the perk of hanging out with me. Mom is making grand plans in her head, and she will bring them up soon. I could see it on her face when I told her I was meeting you.”
“The idea of marrying me is so abhorrent?” Kabir was surprised at how vehemently she was opposing it. It’s not like he wanted it, but she really was bruising his ego.
“No, of course not, Kabir. It’s just that—.” He cut her off before she could say anything. But what could have she said? No, the idea wasn’t abhorrent. It had once been her dream, getting married to Kabir—her childhood saviour, her hero, her friend. But she wasn’t a little girl anymore.
“It’s fine. Ankita was my girlfriend for two years. We broke up, but Mom never got over it.”
“But why did you break up?”
“That’s a good question and one I don’t care to answer.”
“That’s not fair! You know all my secrets.”
“Life’s unfair. Deal with it.”
“Oh, what the hell! But you have to promise me you won’t tell anyone. And that includes my mother and sister!”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.” She pledged in a mocking tone, but Kabir knew in his heart that she won’t betray his trust.
Here goes, he thought to himself as he began the story he had never said out loud.
“I started dating her after my first book was published. She was an events manager, and I met her during one of my readings at a children’s library. Her company had organised it for the library. We dated for a while, fell in love, I proposed, and we were going to get married. A few weeks after we told our parents, she got pregnant, and had an abortion.”
Kate gaped at him in horror, and questioned, “What? She cheated on you? It wasn’t your kid?”
“Nope, it was mine. She just didn’t want to be a mom.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“She loved her job, more than she loved me. She didn’t want anything to stop her while she was at the top of her game.”
“I’m so sorry, Kabir.” She almost whispered.
“It’s fine. It was a long time ago. I’ve moved on.” Liar, he accused himself.
“You didn’t tell anyone at home?”
“What was the point? The moment she told me she had an abortion, something just broke inside. I had no idea she was pregnant. No idea I was going to be a father.”
“How far along was she?”
“Does it matter? I lost my kid, Kate.” Kate saw the pain in his eyes and shut up. So this was the cross he wore, she finally understood. He was still secretly mourning for a child he never knew, and knowing Kabir and knowing how much he loved children, he always would.
Ch7: 'Welcome To The Jungle, Err... Family'
“Aye Christian haigi, Christian aiwe hi honde ne.”
“They don’t realise that I know Hindi and Punjabi, do they?” Kate asked Kabir, who was embarrassed beyond belief by his aunt.
Kabir had invited Kate and Aria to his home for lunch with his parents and Sasha, but unexpected guests arrived too—his maternal aunt and uncle. His parents welcomed Kate and her little version with open arms, but those two had been making fuss ever since they found out Kate was an unmarried mother.
Not a lot had changed in the house, Kate noticed when Aunty whisked Aria away to the kiddie room, which was once Sasha’s playground, and where Aria and Sasha’s son Udai were now playing. The three-bedroom house was still cosy and inviting—nothing like her house growing up. Family pictures adorned walls in the hall; the dining table was new but everyone still shared meals together at least once a day and a cabinet still displayed trophies that the kids of the house had won. A home with a soul, she thought, sitting at the leather sofa with Kabir and his relatives. Uncle was in the office, and Aunty and Sasha were running after the kids. Once they all united in the room again, they would proceed for the lunch.
“Pehen ke te dekho kya aayi hai. Chote chote kapde. Chi!” She was wearing a cut sleeve top with jeans.
“E Kabir di dost haigi? Bolna padega Shashi nu apne puttar nu door rakhe aisi ladkiyon se.”
“I should check on Aria,” she told Kabir, and stood up smiling at the couple still yapping away about the disgrace she was. “Main aati hoon, aunty.” She walked off as they gaped at her.
She found the four of them in Sasha’s room, playing carom. Aria, who was too little to understand the game, was just following Aunty’s lead and doing as she said. A similar scene came to her mind—the same game in Sasha’s room she used to play with almost the same people; sometimes uncle joined them, and sometimes they pulled Kabir in. One of the countless happy memories in this house, she reminisced.
They all proceeded for lunch after uncle had arrived, and he accepted Kate and her daughter like the rest of his family—with open arms. Kabir had already told them the story (or what he thought was the story), and they didn’t care about Aria’s father. What must it be like to have such parents! After uncle and aunty asked the couple to behave, she didn’t hear any taunting about Aria’s upbringing. She smiled at Kabir, who was sitting to her left, and he returned her smile.
What everyone took notice of was the father-daughter relationship that was blooming. Aria was tailing Kabir, calling him to read her stories and insisting on sitting with him, asking him to feed her. Kabir, on his part, was patient with the little one and entertained her with his antics. It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that the two had bonded—especially Sasha, who kept grinning at them. Uncle and aunty treated Aria as their own too, just like they did Udai.
Kate was helping aunty serve dessert after dinner, when she finally spoke what she had been dying to: “Kate, don’t you think Aria is getting too attached to Kabir?”
Taken aback, she thought Kabir’s mom was worried that her 35-year-old son was getting too close to someone else’s kid when he should be fathering his own. Aunty looked at her as she had stopped midway serving a scoop of ice cream and said, “Don’t get me wrong. I meant exactly the opposite of what you think. I was thinking, how wonderful it would be if you and Kabir got married.”
“Aunty, we can’t do that. That’s not possible.”
“Why? Listen to me. You both like each other, I know that much. He looks so happy with you. And clearly, Aria has also made friends with him. Kate, Aria needs a father. When I look at her, I see you—lonely, confused, looking for answers she doesn’t know the questions to. Why not give all of you a chance?”
“Because, I can’t do this to Kabir. He needs his own family, his own life. I can’t be a wife or a daughter-in-law for that matter. I’ll never be enough for him. And he thinks of me as a kid, he always has.”
“Try again, Kate.” Sasha entered the kitchen and said her favourite dialogue, “And this time, the truth.”
Flabbergasted, Kate confessed: “He doesn’t love me! He never has and he never will!” Sobering a little, she declared, “And what if he hates Aria, hates the responsibility of raising someone else’s child? I can’t let history repeat itself!” Kate left the kitchen, walking past Sasha who was glued to the doorway.
Ch8: 'The Truth Will Set You Free'
After that fateful lunch, Kate immersed herself in her work and avoided Kabir and his family. There was only this much a heart could take. She wasn’t in denial—she had loved him since she was a girl herself, but they weren’t meant to be. He was running from everything that spelled marriage; he had said so himself, and she had Aria to think of. Her own happiness mattered less; her precious little daughter came first.
A few weeks later, when she was in hibernation due to fever and cold, she found the person she least expected on her door—Kabir. Aria was playing with her dolls in her room, and she came running out after Kate. “Aria said you were sick,” he declared, walking inside without waiting for her to invite him in. “I brought soup,” he raised the packet he had in his hand and gave it to her.
“Hello, baby girl. What’s up?”
“Kabir uncle!” She jumped with joy, excited to see him. She hugged him fiercely, like he would disappear from their life any second, and Kate realised how much they loved each other. Kabir mussed her daughter’s hair, and she giggled.
They all ate together at the dining table, with Kabir feeding Aria. He tucked her into bed and read her stories, and then went straight for the door. He was back in five minutes with another packet in his hand. “I thought you’d be hungry. But Chinese is not good for kids. May I come in?”
“Aria called you?” Kate knew that her daughter was adept with her phone and that she frequently called Kabir and Sasha but never without her knowledge.
“She did. She said whenever she got sick, you took care of her. Now you need someone.”
Kate’s heart swelled with love, “I just had a cold.”
After a moment’s comfortable silence, Kabir asked suddenly, “Aria isn’t yours, is she? I knew it the moment you told me that bullshit about your one night stand. Tell me the truth, Kate.”
“How dare you? Haven’t I been through enough? HOW COULD YOU?” Jenny yelled at Kate the moment she entered the house.
“Will you please let me explain?” Kate tried to calm her down but Jenny went on with her tirade, pointing her freshly-manicured finger at her. “Explain! EXPLAIN! Explain what this baby is doing here. Explain how you adopted her without my consent. Explain why, I, her mother, wasn’t informed.”
“Because, you gave her away. You have no right. The moment you signed those papers, Aria was mine.”
“I told you specifically, I wanted a closed adoption.” She hissed through her teeth.
“It still is. You didn’t have to come here. God knows you haven’t bothered about me since mom died or set a foot in my house after Aria was born.”
“You just hate me, don’t you? Like you hated dad. That’s why you didn’t attend his funeral. He did the right thing to throw you out, you bitch. I won’t let you and your bastard live in peace.”
“Get out. If you come close to me or Aria again, I will tell your husband about your affair. Then, I’ll call our loving brother. We both know whose side he will be on.” Not with either one of them though, but Jenny’s filthy rich husband.
She replayed the scene in her head, as she finally admitted to Kabir: “Sasha knows that I adopted my sister’s baby. She wanted an abortion, but she was too late. It wasn’t her husband’s baby, you see, and she didn’t want to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. I convinced her to give birth and make excuses about her absence to her too-busy-to-care husband. My sister trusted me to take care of the adoption procedure, to deal with the adopting couple, and I made her sign the papers that made Aria mine. She had no idea until she saw me with a baby in a grocery store three months later Aria was born. She confronted me, and I threatened her I’d tell her husband. Scared, I moved to another neighbourhood and changed my number.”
“You snatched her baby and then extorted her?”
“She didn’t want her! She was giving her up. I had already told her I would take care of her and never let anyone find out. But she didn’t care. She wanted Aria to be out of her life, to be lost in the crowd. I was the only one who cared about her enough to not to abandoned.”
“So you lied.”
“Now you know everything.”
“Not everything. I still don’t know why you wouldn’t marry me.”
I was in love with you, Kabir. All my childhood. When we all moved away, I missed you terribly. But you forgot me. You promised you’d visit me, call me, email me, but you never did. Now it’s too late.
“I can’t let Aria grow up with a stepfather like I did.”
“Liar!” He spat.
“It’s the truth. You want your own kids; you still mourn your baby. You will resent Aria, and I won’t stand for it.”
“You really think I’ll do what Francis did?”
“Stop lying, for God’s sake!”
And with that, he walked out the house.
Ch9: 'Matters Of The Heart'
He had never met anyone who lied as much as Kate did. Not out of malice, she just didn’t know how else to protect herself. But that was no excuse. She knew he loved Aria like his own, and he would never hurt her. And yet, she compared him to that bastard! He had been visiting Aria’s school, specifically scheduling readings there, and calling her frequently even though Kate was avoiding him like the plague ever since that lunch at his home. Her mother had overdone it; he realised that, but Kate was such a scared cat!
Kabir had listened to Sasha replay the scene later that night, and he had been furious—at his mom for interfering, and at Kate, for refusing him.
He couldn’t help but laugh at the irony—a woman had once aborted his baby because she didn’t want the trouble, and there was Kate who had taken on more than she could handle by adopting her sister’s baby. She must have been so terrified, he thought. A single working mother was frowned upon in the society, but she braved the storm. “I had no other option,” she had confessed during one of their conversations.
Opening the door of his car in rage, he went back to her door and charged inside when she opened it. “You’re scared. You hide behind Aria, but you are scared to trust me.”
She pointed a finger at him and poked him on the chest. “You’re a womaniser, for God’s sake! You go out every day with different women! How can I trust you?”
“You have been lying since we met; about Aria, about her dad, about us!” He swashed away her finger like he was swatting a fly.
Kate’s anger soared, “You don’t want to marry me! You are just mad because I refused you! Your ego got hurt.”
A part of it was true, but he wasn’t going to admit that to her. Instead, he settled with offence to defend himself, “You are such a damn fool! Of course I want to be with you, you idiot!”
“You don’t love me, Kabir. You’ve always been a rescuer,” she said in a small voice, all the fight getting the best of her.
He didn’t say anything then. Taking a step towards her, he took her face in his big hands and bowed down to kiss her. After they parted, he started a rant about how she didn’t know what she wanted and she wasn’t a man enough to accept she loved him. “Of course I’m not a man, you buffoon!”
They were still yelling at each other when Aria came out her room, rubbing her eyes and looked at them apprehensively. She was their little bundle of joy, they both realised as they watched the little girl dressed in SpongeBob pyjamas, an unhappy pout on her drool-smeared face.
Chastised by the look Aria gave them, they piped down. After sending her back to her room, they were still arguing until Kabir couldn’t take any more of Kate’s rant about his philandering ways. He paraded towards the dining table where a tall glass of water was standing and dumped it over Kate’s head. Shell-shocked, she looked at him like a grumpy cat and exacted her revenge by pouring a jar of cold water on him.
Surprised at their childish behaviour, they started laughing looking at each other’s wet clothes and sat down to discuss everything like adults.
“You want your own kids,” Kate brought up the subject again.
“Not, if you don’t want to. Aria’s enough for us. We aren’t much better than kids ourselves,” he smiled at her, taking her hand as they seated themselves on the sofa.
“What about those other women?”
“It’s never been serious, Kate. I go out with them, but I have never given anyone the wrong idea.”
“And Aria’s teacher, Parul? She is smitten with you.”
“And I’m smitten with you.”
She gazed into his eyes and knew he was telling the truth. “I have loved you all my life, you know? But I’m scared. I’m very scared.”
“I know, Katie. I am too. I don’t want to fail you or Aria.”
“I can’t marry you just like that. It’d be stupid. But we can give each other a chance, don’t you think?”
“That’s the only sensible thing you’ve said all day.”
He never did see that punch coming, but he should have expected it.
Ch10: 'The Thing About Relationships'
Two months later, on Aria’s sixth birthday, everyone gathered in Kate’s house when they cut the cake: Kabir; Sasha, her husband, and their son; Kabir’s parents; and Kate’s best friend, Maya. She would take Aria’s friends to McDonald’s the next day—Sunday—but today, it was all family.
Since Kate wasn’t great in the kitchen, Aunty, Sasha and Kabir helped her cook. She was surprised to find that Kabir was a better cook than all of them combined. “He went to London for his writing course and fended for himself for years. Now he tries to keep kicking me out of my own kitchen!”
Another box to tick in his favour, Kate thought. This man worked harder than she did—he wrote at least for four hours every day, went to attend reading sessions, presided over the shooting of a cartoon based on his book, and still had time for his family. He wasn’t the most popular children’s book author in the country, but he was one of the top 15.
They had been going out for past four weeks, and never had he complained about his hectic schedule, or cancelled his plans with her or Aria. He still visited her school occasionally, and though Kate was jealous of Parul (not that she’d ever tell him that!), she knew he loved Aria too much to stop his reading sessions.
Oh, he had his moments. He had a temper problem, and he was too sensitive about Kate. He would get upset if Kate didn’t tell him about her troubles. And he was always chiding her for overprotecting Aria. “She will not learn to ride a bike if you don’t let her fall!” he exclaimed once in the park. Later, Aria and Kabir had banned her from their riding sessions. She grumbled for a week, but forgot all about it when they invited her to see her little girl riding a bicycle.
Prancing in a red polka dress, Aria was telling everyone about the new iPad that Kabir had bought her, deaf to Kate’s incessant protests. He was spoiling her with materialistic possessions. When she conveyed that in her harshest mother voice, he had laughed at her and said, “She is the best-behaved kid I know, and I’ve seen plenty. She needs some spoiling.”
Secretly, Kate worried, albeit with a hint of guilt, that Kabir was giving Aria everything that she couldn’t. She worked as an independent PR professional; it was not a full-time, demanding job, and thus, projects didn’t bring as much cash as she wished. They got by modestly, but she didn’t have enough money to buy her daughter lavish luxuries. Kabir did—not with his books but the cartoon series based on his books.
Kabir caught Kate’s eye from across the room where she was serving cake for everyone and saw her looking at Aria. She constantly worried that he would replace her in Aria’s heart and that squeezed his heart out. He didn’t want her to think he was stealing her kid away. He loved them both and he had to give Kate time to adjust to another person in their lives. “I’m your partner, Kate, not your competition,” he communicated to her in his mind.
Will she ever let him in?
Ch11: 'Our Lives... Intertwined'
The moment came exactly six months after they had jumped into the relationship. Kate wasn’t too happy about sharing Aria’s love, but she did like someone’s shoulder to carry her burden with her. She asked him to pick up Aria some days when she couldn’t, and he cooked dinner for them like they were really a family. As the last of her doubts and insecurities eased, Kabir, with the help of Aria, popped the question to Kate.
“Against my better judgment, I have fallen in love with a difficult, fiercely independent woman and her sweet, intelligent daughter. Will you both accept me?” He asked mother and daughter on a Sunday afternoon. While Kate had been touched that he involved Aria, her daughter phoned Sasha, telling her proudly that she had a dad now.
“Let’s elope. Save ourselves the trouble,” he announced as they leafed through different designs of wedding cards his mother had picked around 7 in the evening. Aria had nested with her Barbies and two besotted grandparents in Sasha’s old room, which would be hers after the wedding. Kate’s house, they decided they would gift to Aria when she was older. Kabir had suggested buying a house for them, closer to his parents’, but Kate wouldn’t hear of it. She had just found a family and she would stick to them. Besides, their four-bedroom home was big enough for everyone. “Do you really want to live here?” he had asked her, concerned about all the memories lurking around just about every corner of the building. “I’ve known no other home,” she had said, beaming at him as he hugged her.
His mother had completely given herself to this wedding—her son’s only and quite late wedding, and it was difficult for the rest of them to keep up with her enthusiasm. Even Sasha got tired of all the wedding talks and decided to go to Mumbai for a few months. Her husband was particularly elated, who wouldn’t have to do back and forth between Delhi and Mumbai.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think eloping is a great idea! We will have to take Aria with us though,” Kate said.
“No questions about that.”
“And Sasha. We will need help.”
“Okay, two people.”
“But Kabir, your mom has planned so much for us. We have to tell her, too.”
“Do you understand the meaning of the word, ‘elope’, woman?” “And your dad. Can’t leave him out; his feelings will be hurt. I know he doesn’t say much, but he loves you terribly.”
“You too. He can’t believe I took so much time to woo you.”
“Six months isn’t a lot. And I know for a fact that your dad is proud of you, of what you’ve become.”
Kabir was not convinced. Her entrepreneur dad always wanted his son to join his furniture business. Kabir’s heart was not in it. So he resigned to the fact that his first-born liked writing more than selling beds to newly married couples. His daughter, however, took a great interest in his work, always designing something, staging the store.
“We will let Aria be whoever she wants to be. No pressure.”
That gave Kate so much joy that she didn’t care where they got married and how. She had a family she had craved since her childhood, and nothing else mattered.