Towards the south of Mumbai on the western coast of India, the mighty Sahayadri Mountains look pensively at the sparkling Arabian Sea and the sea tries to leap towards the mountains in an eternal dance of an ancient longing. Nestled between the two eternal lovers is one of the most remarkable landscapes in India - the lush green Konkan that sparkles in the sun like a shining emerald.
While traveling along the winding roads of Konkan, one can see little thatched houses surrounded by coconut and mango trees overlooking tiny paddy fields. At night, the trees look as if they are ablaze for thousands of fireflies swarm on them and the night is punctuated by the song of crickets that wake up while the people sleep.
Except for the roads, perhaps, one would have seen this exact same sight even a couple of hundred years ago. Konkan is only now waking up to modernization as the Government is trying to industrialize the region. But most of the society still remains predominantly backward. Poverty and illiteracy is rampant and age old traditions, beliefs and dogmas about morality and immorality still have a firm grip on the minds of the people.
Bapu lived alone on his ancestral land in Chiplun, a town in Konkan region. The home he lived in, once housed a huge family of his six brothers and two sisters. As his siblings grew up, one by one they left to find better lives in big cities. Bapu, the youngest child, was left behind with his old parents. He devoted himself to taking care of his parents and after their deaths, Bapu continued to live in the old ancestral home maintaining the family property. Day after day, his routine consisted of taking care of the couple of cows that he tied in the shade behind the house, making a stack of flat bread and feeding an army of some ten mongrels that he had adopted. In the evening he would gather his friends a game of cards and the group would drink and play late into the night.
A bachelor at 57, his life moved in a set pattern like the cogs on a wheel varying only during the summer visits of his brothers and their families when the old house would be engulfed in the sounds of laughing adults and little children running around from room to room, screaming and playing. The rest of the year Bapu would be surrounded by silence and loneliness. Bapu had come to a point that he did not expect his life to change and had settled like sediment - rigidified in time. Quirky and nasty at times, he lived his life as he pleased.
Even on day when the thin waiflike girl appeared at his doorstep and Bapu, did not realize that his life was never going to be same again.
It was the monsoon season and rains were pounding on earth with a vengeance. Bapu had finished feeding his dogs and was spreading the sheets on the floor, preparing to sleep. He heard a knock and turned around to look at young girl of about eighteen standing in the doorway. Wet and bedraggled, she stood holding the door, shivering. For a second, Bapu was terrified and frozen, thinking she was a ghost. Then when he came back to his senses, he screamed, "Shoo you filthy beggar, I have nothing to give you! Go find someone else!" The girl did not budge, in fact much to his amazement she actually came in. She was gaunt and pale. Her saree was clinging to her thin body making her look even thinner. Her lips and knuckles were white from staying for too long in the rain and her bindi had washed away leaving a faint red mark on her forehead. Her long hair, tied in a braid, was limp and wet and a stray strand or two stuck to her forehead.
"Bapu, please give me a place to stay", she said to him in a trembling voice. "My name is Asha and I am from a small village nearby. My step mother kicked me out of the house and now I have nowhere to go. Nobody would give me shelter and even if they did, who knows what they would do to a lone girl like me. Bapu, I have heard so much about you. You are so kind at heart that you give shelter even to stray dogs. Bapu, I beg you, please, please let me stay." She entreated. "I have even found a job. I swear I would not trouble you even a bit. I will just come here to stay at nights and leave in the morning. You won’t even know I was here." She assured.
Bapu did not know what to say. This was quite a bizarre situation for him. On one hand he was feeling sorry for the girl, on the other he wanted to shoo her away. The girl stood there, looking down at the floor, waiting for him to say something.
After what seemed like an eternity, Bapu spoke. "Just for a few days!" he grunted and pointed her to a room and turned back to making his bed. Asha stood there for a while thinking he would say something more but Bapu did not even look at her again. He got busy with his task as if he had forgotten about her completely. Then, without a word, Asha went outside and brought her tattered old suitcase and went to her room.
In a few days Bapu got used to Asha’s presence in his house. She was certainly not the shy, timid waif like he had thought her to be. In fact she was quite sharp and very assertive. Once she settled down in the house, Bapu noticed that she was actually quite good looking and took good care of herself. She was clean, efficient and worked hard.
She would wake up early and make tea and breakfast for Bapu. Before going for work, she would cook and clean the house. Her clothes would be cheap but immaculate and her hair would be neatly tied in a long braid at her back.
Bapu had never seen his house so neat since is mother died. Despite himself, he was very grateful to have real food on his table and clean clothes to wear. He did not realize that day by day he was growing dependent on Asha.
Her clout on Bapu was increasing. Soon enough Asha took over the management of the house completely. The mongrels were driven away, the cow shade was cleaned, the closed rooms in the house were opened, and Asha rented them out to tenants. She had even taken over the negotiation while selling the coconuts and tamarind fruit from the farms. Bapu’s household was now Asha’s fiefdom - immaculately maintained.
Bapu grumbled at times about this encroachment, as was his nature, but somewhere inside he actually felt relieved. He had started counting on Asha to be his companion, his advisor. For the first time in his life, he was feeling what it was like not to be alone.
But, people in the town were talking, asking Bapu what was going on. Many warned him that this girl did not have a good background. They informed him that she was driven away from her village not by her step mother but by the villagers who found her to be of a loose character. What was his relation with her; they demanded and threatened to ostracize him.
"Call her my daughter, call her my companion, call her whatever you want but she is not moving from here!" Eccentric Bapu shouted at the neighbors who demanded that Asha be sent away.
Word was sent out to Bapu’s oldest brother, warning him about the developments back home. Bapu’s brother came down with his wife to find out what was going on. The couple tried to cajole and coax Bapu. They pleaded and demanded to him to send Asha away, but Bapu refused to listen. Frustrated, the couple stormed out of his house, threatening that they will never come back to this house until she was gone. Bapu said nothing and just watched his brother leave.
Bapu was shunned by people, but he did not care. He had his Asha. What was she to him? He did not care to analyze. He was definitely not sexually attracted to this girl who was less than half his age. He did not want to give this relation a name, for if he called her his daughter, she would have to be sent away one day. He felt responsible for her wellbeing, and worried for her. She would sometimes stay late in the evenings and Bapu would want to know where she had been.
"Oh, Bapu don’t worry, I was with a girl friend watching a movie." Asha would inform. Sometimes she would come well past midnight and Bapu would be awake, pacing up and down the hallway. When he asked her why she was late, she had a new excuse every time – that she had to work late, that she had to go see a sick friend, that she missed the bus.
Sometimes she would just snap at him saying it was none of his business where she was and slam the door of her room. Bapu would get very upset at her audacity but would say nothing and retire to his room.
However, after a few months Bapu noticed that Asha had changed. She was still running the household but was not as feisty as before. She had become quiet and was visibly pale. She stopped going to work and spent most of her time in her room.
Bapu was worried that she was sick. When he asked her to go with him to the doctor, she refused. He implored her several times, but she would either snap at him or get up and go to her room and shut the door behind her. Bapu was frustrated and was finding it really difficult to communicate with her. Asha seemed to have withdrawn into her own shell.
Then one day Asha did not come out of her room at all. Bapu was frightened. He knocked several times but there was no answer. Finally he broke down the door and entered to room to find Asha on the floor writhing in pain. He picked her up and hurriedly took her to a hospital nearby.
The doctor admitted her and told Bapu that Asha was going into a premature labor. Bapu was speechless.
Shocked and confused beyond comprehension, he sat down slowly on a chair in the waiting lounge. All this time he had never noticed that Asha was pregnant. A lifelong bachelor, Bapu was completely ignorant about these things. Her coming late, her nightly visits, it all started making sense. He wished he had seen this before. He wished he had paid attention to what people were saying about her. He was furious and hurt, but found himself much too involved in her to abandon Asha.
A few hours later, the doctor came to Bapu and told him that Asha had given birth to a son. They would have to keep the two in the hospital for a few days and then he could take her home, the doctor informed. Bapu nodded and silently turned to go home.
Bapu would visit Asha in the hospital every day. He brought her food, clothes and medicines and took care of her needs. But they never talked. He never demanded and explanation from her, and she offered none. He would bring her supplies; arrange them by her bedside and leave, without a word.
When Asha and her baby were discharged from the hospital, Bapu brought them home and showed them to Asha’s room. Asha was pale, worn out and silent. What was going on in her mind? Bapu could not fathom but he considered it was his duty to take care of the mother and the baby.
But Asha was still withdrawn. Much to the chagrin of Bapu, she seemed to ignore the baby completely and did not take care of him at all. Bapu could not bear to see the child crying of hunger. He tried to make Asha take care of the child, but she was as if frozen. It was impossible to get through to her. Finally, he asked women living nearby how to take care of the baby and started looking after the child himself. He even gave a name to him, "Ashish", meaning benediction. While Bapu would bathe and feed little Ashish, Asha would simply wander through the house silently like a specter.
Then one day, Bapu woke up to the sound of the screaming child. He got up and hurried to Asha’s room. Ashish was lying on the bed, but Asha was nowhere to be seen. Her belongings were strewn across the floor and her tattered suitcase was missing. Asha had simply abandoned her child and gone away.
Bapu was angry and devastated. He tried to look for her and went from house to house asking her whereabouts. He even went to the police. But Asha was nowhere to be found. After a long, futile search, as he came home dejected and heartbroken, the little child leapt to his arms, gurgling and laughing. Bapu’s heart cried for the child. Like him, little Ashish was lonely and so much more vulnerable. Bapu could not abandon this child and resolved to take care of him, no matter what.
Bapu devoted himself to taking care of his ward. He was alone, but Ashish gave him strength. In Ashish's eyes, Bapu had found purpose for his own life. He missed Asha sometimes, but she resided only in his memory. He would wonder sometimes where she was and despite himself, still wished for her happiness.
Then one day, without a warning, Asha reappeared in his life. One morning, Bapu saw her walking towards the house slowly and wearily, with a tattered suitcase in her hand. She looked sick and undernourished. Dressed in tattered old saree, her hair tied into an untidy bun, she looked much older for her age. Her youthful charm was gone and so had the sparkle in her eyes.
But looking at her coming back like this, Bapu was furious. All this time he had suppressed his anger and frustration. But now seeing her again, he could not contain himself. All his pent up anger burst like a dam. With an energy belying his age, Bapu rapidly came down the steps of his house and stood in Asha's tracks.
"Get out!" He Screamed "How dare you come here like this? Get out of here!" He said and grabbed Asha's hand and started dragging her towards the gate. Asha's suitcase fell open and her belongings scattered on the ground. Asha resisted Bapu's assault and burst into tears. "Bapu, please, please at least listen to me!" She implored and got down on her knees. "Please Bapu, don't drive me away. I beg you, have pity on me. I have nowhere else to go. I will die Bapu, I will die!" Asha clutched Bapu's feet and begged.
Bapu could not bear this sight. Although he was still furious, somewhere inside he had a soft spot for her. Seeing her contrite and vulnerable, Bapu felt pity and he stopped dragging her. However, he did not say anything and just turned away, leaving Asha on her knees, slouched and sobbing.
After her tears were spent, Asha got up slowly and gathered her belongings and went into the house. Bapu did not stop her. She went to what used to be her room, kept her suitcase and came out.
Bapu was sitting in the verandah in his armchair his eyes focused far away. Asha came out and quietly sat down on the floor at his feet. Bapu seemed lost in his own thoughts, and did not even turn to look at her.
"I know Bapu, that you are disgusted with me." She said slowly after a while "Bapu, I really have no words to apologize and perhaps don't have a right to show you my face. I am a sinner, a selfish and a depraved person who deserves the worst punishment. You should loathe me, for I loathe myself"
"When I came here first I had lied to you. I told you my step mother had kicked me out of the house. In reality I had run away myself because I wanted to come to a big town to earn a lot of money and marry a rich man so that I could live a life of luxury." "After coming here, I started working in a small grocery shop in this town. One of the customers there was this young man, extremely attractive and sweet talking. He would come there every day and try to talk to me. He would always be well dressed and ride a flashy motorcycle. He would tell me how beautiful I was and that any man would be willing die for me."
"Whenever he would come, he would bring me a present. Bapu, I resisted him at first, but could not help being hypnotized by his charm. He promised he would marry me and take me to big city. This dream had possessed me so much that I had become a puppet in his hands. Bapu, I did not even realize what I was doing until it was too late. "
"When I found out I was pregnant, it was already too late to abort the child. I tried to contact the child's father several times but he was nowhere to be seen. I lost my job in the shop and people started jeering and pointing at me wherever I went. It was like the whole town knew about my plight and no one but you had any sympathy for me. I was so mortified Bapu, and so frightened."
"After Ashish was born I was overwhelmed. I had no idea how to take care of a child. In fact I felt like he was a burden to me, a shackle in my feet. I could think of nothing else but getting away from him. I was so selfish Bapu, that I just packed my bags and walked away, without even looking back at my child."
"Soon after I left this house, I met my lover again. He asked me to run away with him to the city. I complied. But this person took me to a brothel and tried to sell me. I was so angry, so frustrated and so helpless. Bapu, I cannot describe what a nightmare it was! I was lucky that I could somehow run away from there."
"I wandered from city to city hungry and lonely for I did not have the courage to come here. I could not go back to my own village; my step mother would never let me in. However, my guilt was gnawing at me, burning me inside. Bapu you were an angel to me, but I never realized your worth. I was so wrong Bapu, I was so self-centered!"
"I have broken my life to pieces with my own hands. I had become wayward. But now I have learned Bapu, I have seen life. I have seen what character is, what integrity is and what it means to be responsible. "
"I don't know if there is any way for me to redeem my honor. But if you don't accept me, I will have no way but to take my own life." Asha said and crouched down, sobbing. She cried with all her heart, her pain flowed through her eyes as if she could never stop.
Bapu looked tenderly at the fragile, weak girl, shuddering in agony. Yes she had committed, perhaps, the gravest mistakes, but she was only a girl. She wasn't any different from so many young women who are lured into the whirlpool of the world by fragile dreams and empty promises. So many like her are used and mercilessly destroyed without ever getting a chance.
Yes they had done terrible things. But wasn't this as much a responsibility of the people who made them do these things? And do we just leave them to die, just because they lost their way? This was not right, not right, thought Bapu. Bapu sat besides Asha and stroked her hair gently, comforting her, supporting her. Slowly, Asha calmed down. She knew now that there was one place in the world she could call home.
But, Asha could not just live in Bapu's house. The backward society in which they lived would not accept them living like this. Getting her married to someone was out of question. She had already been bad mouthed so much that nobody would have wanted to marry her. Bapu did not care for people while he was alive. But he worried that Asha and little Ashish would have to live in a nightmare after he died. He could not protect them forever unless there was a socially acceptable stamp on their relation. Asha understood all this too, so when Bapu asked her to marry him, she agreed.
Bapu and Asha got married soon after. For a while people laughed and gossiped about the odd couple, but in time their relation got accepted. After a couple of years, Asha gave birth to Bapu's daughter who has turned out to be an incredibly bright child. Asha redeemed her dignity and Bapu was no longer lonely. Bapu and Asha's marriage of convenience has turned into a stronger bond than any other relation could ever be.
Note: This is a true story, but names and places have been changed to protect the identity of people involved.
*ASHA= Means 'Hope'.
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