Mini saw the grin on Abhilash’s face and immediately said, ‘don’t spend the whole weekend playing. Try and study a bit. You have an exam next week.’ She resume powdering Abhilash’s face and when she was finished, she patted his shirt to remove the few specks of talcum powder that had flown down from his face and landed on the light blue fabric of his shirt.
‘But the test is only next Thursday! Why should I start studying now? And it’s only a class test.’
‘Because you must. Because I said so. Just do it, or you may fail the test.’
Mini gave Abhilash’s belt a tug so that the buckle would be positioned perfectly in the centre. However, she must have tugged a mite too hard since the belt moved too much to the right and had to be moved back.
‘Ouch! No, I won’t. I know most of Chapter Three anyway.’
‘Don’t you have both Chapter Three and Chapter Four?’
‘Yes, but Chapter Four is very small and ..’
‘Revise them both once. At least once. Okay? Make your Daddy sit with you when you revise.’
‘But Daddy says we should only have fun when I am with him.’
‘Don’t you have fun when you are with me?’
‘Yes, I do Mummy!’ Abhilash gave his mother a hug, which Mini grudgingly accepted.
Mini was about to say, ‘but you like your Daddy better, but she stopped herself just in time.
‘Mummy, if I get full marks in the test, will you buy me a mobile?
‘No, you are only ten. Ten year olds don’t need mobiles.’
‘What if I get the third rank in the half-yearly exam?’
‘No. If you come first, I’ll buy you one.’
‘But I won’t get first rank!’ Abhilash wailed. There’s Renju who is so clever and there’s Jincy P. Kuruvila and …’
Mini’s mother breezed into the room, ‘Is Abhilash ready yet? He might as well leave before it gets dark.’
‘Is Jobin here yet?’
‘Yes, he got back ages ago.’
‘Normally he doesn’t get back from the market so quickly.’
‘Yes, but today he wants to go for a movie with his family after he drops off Abhilash.’
Mini grunted to show her displeasure.
‘Abhilash, tell your Daddy to cut down on the liquor.’
‘But Daddy has stopped drinking.’ Abhilash looked at his grandmother’s face to see if she believed him. ‘Yes, since last Christmas, he hasn’t touched a drop.’
‘That’s what he tells you. Won’t I know better? That man won’t change.’
‘Mama, drop it,’ Mini admonished her mother.
Abhilash picked up the small suitcase that he was to carry with him.
‘See, he is raring to go,’ Mini told her mother. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry,’ she added to Abhilash.
‘Ammachi said I should get there before dark. That’s why I was in a hurry.’ Abhilash put the suitcase down and waited for the two adults to make up their minds.
Ammachi took a deep breath and Mini clenched her teeth, though Abhilash’s monthly trips to Panampally Nagar to visit his father had been going on for almost a year.
‘He might as well go,’ Mini said. ‘It will get dark pretty soon.’ She added.
Mini’s mother was less forgiving. ‘I hope they give him dinner when he gets there. ‘Are you feeling hungry?’ she asked Abhilash.
‘No. Not at all,’ Abhilash replied, trying to hide his anxiety.’
‘Is mon ready?’ Jobin’s booming voice could be heard from the courtyard. Jobin was almost fifty and only Mini’s father had the guts to reproach him.
In the absence of any injunction from his mother or grandmother, Abhilash picked up his suitcase which was propped against the light green wall. ‘Mummy, I will come back before it gets dark on Sunday,’ he told his mother and walked out, trying hard not to put a spring in his step.
He would be at VeegaLand tomorrow!
Forty minutes later, he was knocking on the door of his father’s bungalow at Panampally Nagar.
Forty one minutes later, he was enclosed in a bear hug, his father smelling of something nice, something he would definitely drink when he was older.
‘Moné, you look so very thin,’ his father’s mother said. ‘Don’t they give you enough to eat?’
‘They do Ammachi.’ Abhilash turned around whilst still inside his father’s bear hug so that he could meet his grandmother’s eyes.
‘Why did you bring that suitcase? Don’t you have enough clothes here?’
‘Daddy your paunch is even bigger.’ Abhilash got out of the hug and wrapped his arms around his father’s tummy, which couldn’t be encompassed with his two hands.
‘Yes, it is,’ his Daddy cheerfully admitted.
‘You are going to stay here forever, aren’t you?’ his grandmother asked.
Abhilash smiled back at her.
‘Give him something to eat,’ Abhilash’s Daddy commanded his grandmother.’
‘Yes, let me do that. Here give me your suitcase.’
‘Where is Hannah?’
‘Where else? She is in front of the TV.’
Abhilash’s father put him down and Abhilash ran upstairs to the second drawing room where the TV was always on. Unlike the TV at his own place, which he could switch on only after he finished a certain amount of homework, depending on the mood swings of his mother.
As expected, Hannah was watching TV, some boring girlie cartoon that Abhilash would never watch if the remote control were in his power.
‘Ammae,’ Hannah called out and almost left the room, overcome by a sudden bout of shyness. Abhilash wished she would relinquish the remote, but she didn’t. If anything, her fingers tightened her hold on the remote. There was another TV in his father’s bedroom, but it was rather small and he sensed that his father didn’t really want him watching it, even if he never said anything when he occasionally did.
The next day his Daddy took Hannah and him to VeegaLand as promised during his last visit. They had to make the most of Saturday, since Sunday would be a washout. They would have to go to church in the morning and that would take up the best part of the day. He was expected to get back to his Mummy before sunset, though the court order said nothing of that sort, he knew for sure.
For some reason, Hannah’s parents, Jeboy uncle and Vimala Auntie decided to tag along when they went to Veegaland.
He had been to Veegaland before many times and he knew every ride and every nook and corner very well. May be he ought to have demanded something else, he felt. May be he should have asked that he be taken to that resort at Boulgatti. Never mind, there would be other weekends with his father, he consoled himself.
Vimala Auntie was someone who knew a lot about medicines, though she was not a doctor or anything. She had a chest full of medicines, which she happily dispensed to all and sundry along with a volley of advice, if they cared to listen.
Abhilash made the mistake of sneezing once when standing close to Vimala Auntie. They were about to get into a ride, one which ended with a splash in a pool of water.
‘There, he has got a cold,’ she told Abhilash’s father. ‘I don’t think he should take any of the water rides.’
‘Nonsense, my son doesn’t have a cold. He just sneezed once.’
‘Oh, let him be,’ Jeboy uncle also chipped in. ‘A single sneeze never hurt anybody.’
That almost settled the matter and they got into the queue for the ride. But then, Abhilash sneezed again.
‘There, I told you,’ Vimala Auntie said. ‘Please let’s not take this ride,’ she beseeched Jeboy uncle and Abhilash’s father. ‘I have a strip of Coldarin with me. I’ll give one to Abhilash right away.’
‘May be we shouldn’t,’ Abhilash’s father agreed. ‘Abhilash’s let’s not do this ride. Let’s find something else to do.’
But Abhilash loved the water so much and didn’t want to give in so easily. ‘But Daddy, Mummy always lets me play in the rain. Last week it rained and I went out and played for an hour! Mummy thinks it makes me stronger. And if I catch a cold, she doesn’t give me any medicines!’ The last bit was addressed to Vimala Auntie.
Abhilash’s father was silent for a few seconds. Jeboy uncle looked down, as if he were embarrassed. Vimala Auntie looked angry. But Abhilash didn’t care.
‘Please Daddy, I won’t be back here for a long time,’ Abhilash pressed home his advantage.
‘Fine,’ his father relented. ‘In any event, you can come back here next month as well.’
Abhilash wasn’t sure if he wanted to come here when he had his next visit, but he didn’t reject the promise out of hand. He might feel like visiting Veegaland next month, who knew.
‘Take a Coldarin before you go. At least, the cold won’t get worse.’
Abhilash accepted the Coldarin and swallowed it with some water from the bottle his father had in his backpack.
That evening, they had dinner at Morsels. When they got home, his Daddy said, ‘I have a surprise for you. Guess what?’
‘A cricket set.’
Abhilash now knew that it had to be either a mobile or the model aeroplane. These were the only pending items that deserved the dignity of a ‘surprise’. He looked at his father. Generally he could make out what was coming from the gleam in his eyes. His father was really excited. It had to be the mobile.
‘The model aeroplane?’ Abhilash asked tentatively.
‘No,’ his father sang out and waited for Abhilash to make another guess.
‘A pair of jeans?’ There was a stretch of four months when everything time Abhilash turned up, he got a pair of jeans. It had taken him a while to gently move his father from his jeans fixation to something else.
‘No, not a pair of jeans.’ His father’s eyes never lost their gleam, until they did actually stop gleaming. ‘You do have enough clothes don’t you?’ The intense dark eyes were now full of concern.
‘Yes Daddy I do. Lots of clothes.’ It was a fact. He had a dozen uncles and aunts on each side of the family and they all made it a point to buy his clothes, as if worried that he might be naked on account of his parents’ divorce.
‘I’ve got you a Nokia mobile phone!’ his father intoned. Abhilash jumped with joy that was almost entirely genuine. A few months of lobbying and subtle hinting had finally paid off.
Abhilash paid close attention as his father showed him how his mobile worked. Of course, he had a pretty good idea, having paid close attention to the phone used by his mother, which was a Motorola.
‘Let me save your number Daddy,’ Abhilash said as soon as he managed to prise the phone from his father.
Abhilash knew his father’s mobile number by heart. ‘94471… Now I can call you from school everyday,’ he confirmed to his father.
‘Don’t get into trouble calling me,’ he father cautioned him.
‘No, I won’t.’
‘Do any of your friends have a mobile phone?’ his father asked.
Abhilash hid his irritation at being asked the same question again. ‘Geojit does, but it’s not a new phone. Preetha also has a used phone.’
‘So you will be the first one in your class to have a brand new mobile phone?’
‘Yes Daddy. Abhilash gave his father another hug.’
Sunday was a washout as Abhilash knew it would be. He took a short nap after lunch and woke up at around four. He was to leave at five so that he would be at his mother’s home before six.
His grandmother sat glumly on a rocking chair, rocking herself slowly. On the other hand, his father was a bundle of nervous energy, which he tried to dissipate by walking up and down. Every few minutes, he would ask Abhilash some inane question, which Abhilash tried to answer as best as he could.
‘Do you want to take guitar classes?’
‘Why won’t your Mummy let you do that?’
‘She says I will not study if I go for guitar classes twice a week.’
‘Why can’t you take those lessons when you are with me?’
‘Because I must take those lessons at least once a week. Else, there is no point.’
‘So why can’t you… Okay, okay.. Shall I speak to your mother? No, I won’t… there’s no point. Why don’t you ask her yourself?’
‘And what did she say?’
Abhilash wanted to scream at his father. Instead, he mustered together the last vestiges of his patience and said, ‘she said No. She thinks I will neglect my studies if I go for those classes.’
‘I can give you the fees for those classes. No, that won’t help.’
Finally his Jeboy uncle and Vimala Auntie came into the drawing room (they had been keeping away till then) and took charge.
‘He grows taller each time we see him. Soon he will be taller than his father.’
His father and grandmother were silent since agreement would mean that he was being fed properly by his mother.
‘Do you need anything?’ Vimala Auntie asked him.
Nothing! Abhilash shrugged his shoulders. Departure was always a touchy issue and there was little he could do to make it easier for anybody. If only the adults could be pragmatic about things like this instead of lugging so much excess baggage around!
Finally, Kochamma the maid who had been with the household for over thirty years announced that tea was served.
‘I don’t want any tea,’ Ammachi announced wiping away a tear.
Abhilash was embarrassed. He always felt that way when any grown-up cried. It was the same with his maternal Ammachi who broke into tears every now and then when discussing her daughter’s predicament.
Never mind Ammae, let’s all have tea,’ Jeboy uncle declared.
They trooped into the dining room and took their places. There were mutton puffs, banana chips, pancakes, avalose undas, shortbreads and a big bunch of small yellow plantains.
Abhilash was hungry and he dug in with vigour. His father, Jeboy uncle and Vimala Auntie sat around nibbling.
‘Where’s Hannah?’ Abhilash asked, in between mouthfuls.
‘She’s still sleeping.’ Vimala Auntie told him. Abhilash was irritated. Why couldn’t Hannah have the grace to wake up and say goodbye?
‘Wake her up!’ he told Vimala Auntie.
‘She fell asleep at three thirty. Let her sleep for some more time,’ Jeboy uncle replied good humouredly.
Abhilash stopped eating. He was almost full, but if Hannah had been brought down to say good bye, he would have eaten a bit more.
‘Have you had enough?’
‘Yes,’ he said sulkily.
‘What’s the matter?’ his father.
‘I don’t want to go back Daddy!’ Abhilash burst into tears at that. He felt a bit guilty for a very brief while. No, he hadn’t done anything wrong. Admitting that he was bugged with Hannah for not being awake would have sounded very childish.
His father hugged him, put his down and walked out of the room for a few minutes. Abhilash knew he was crying and felt very bad. Vimala Auntie wiped away a tear. Even Kochamma who was standing in a corner started to sob. Jeboy uncle was the only dry-eyed person in that room.
‘Ten minutes to five. You might as well say goodbye to everyone,’ Jeboy uncle told him.
Abhilash washed his hands in the washbasin that stood in a corner and went to the drawing room where Ammachi was still rocking herself on the rocking chair.
‘Ammachi, I am leaving.’
‘Moné, take care of yourself. Study well. Don’t …’ The rest of Ammachi’s advice was lost in a sudden outbreak of tears.
Abhilash turned on his heels and went back to the dining room. Thankfully Jeboy uncle made the rest of the good byes easier.
‘Give your Daddy a hug. Yes, there, now a kiss for Vimala Auntie. Good. A hug for me.’
Abhilash did particularly want to hug Jeboy uncle since he didn’t seem to be as much affected by his departure as the others were. Nevertheless he hugged Jeboy uncle and he was done.
As expected, his Dad pressed a wad of notes into his pocket. Yes, he knew his father paid his mother a fixed amount of money every month for his upkeep, but this pocket money was strictly a deal between them.
Finally Abhilash was in the car. As the car started moving, he quickly waved goodbye to his father and the others and settled down. They turned a corner and he could no longer see his Daddy’s house. He took out the wad of notes from his pocket and counted them. The usual one thousand rupees in hundred rupee notes. He put five hundred rupees back into his shirt’s pocket and the rest into his trousers’ pocket. His mother expected him to be given some pocket money and she would ask him what he got and take it from him. He would part with the money in his shirt’s pocket. The balance would be added to the pile he hid in the cavity he had dug out in the Rabbit.
Abhilash took out his new mobile phone. His father had assured him that he needn’t worry about the bill, which would be sent to his father. The SIM was in his father’s name anyway.
He dialled Shibu’s home number and got a message that suggested that he had the wrong number. He dialled again and got the same result. Ah! He had to add Kochi’s STD code before dialling the number, didn’t he? 0484… he dialled and soon Shibu’s mother answered the phone.
‘Is Shibu at home?’
‘Shibu? Do you know how I am calling you?’
By the time he hung up, Abhilash had made Shibu very jealous. He then dialled Junaid. Unfortunately Junaid was not at home, Junaid’s mother informed him.
‘Are you acting in the play as well?’ Junaid’s mother asked him.
Oh yes, he was.
Junaid’s mother knew all about the play. She was so much looking forward to seeing the play when it was staged in around six week’s time.
Should he invite his father to come and watch his play? If he did, his mother would be mighty bugged. If he didn’t, his father would be very sad. Not angry, but sad. Later year, he had wanted to invite his father to his school for Sports Day, but his mother had thrown such a big tantrum that he hadn’t.
Sports Day was no big deal. He was not particularly good at any sport and he hadn’t won any prizes. He knew he wouldn’t. But the play was different. He had the second most important role and he had never acted in a play before. His father would be thrilled to bits if only he knew. He almost broke down as he imagined how hurt his father would be if he ever came to knew. But he resisted the tears. His father was no saint. Didn’t he hit his mother so often when they all lived together? Of course, his mother had once flung a dish full of curry at his father. And his father’s mother used to crib every time his mother went out. His mother had once called his father a bastard. Some of the memories were a bit vague, but Abhilash had no doubt that they were all a bunch of nasty idiots who deserved no better.
He fished the mobile out of his pocket and dialled Sanjiv’s number.