Teetai swung her long skinny brown legs over the sofa couch. Leaping up to greet her dad.
It was just after lunch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, with mommy and her baby brother out shopping.
The one day she got to spend with her daddy for a brisk afternoon jaunt, to an amusement park or the zoo, wherever fancy took them. Last week they had fed ducks at the lake, and Teetai had wanted to row. So, this week they planned to go rowing the whole afternoon and have a picnic tea lakeside after that. Ma was strict about dad returning Teetai home by 6:30 pm, once when it had become 7 pm, she had waited outside, with her mouth in a thin stern line. But dad had noticed her worried eyes and apologized. Teetai wanted extra rides at Nicco Park, especially the cable car. “And the Virtual Reality machine next week At Science City daddy,” she had sung out, bright eyed and grinning.
Ma had smiled finally.
Her baby brother Arindam immediately demanded to go but Ma and her new step-daddy wouldn’t let him go. Ma had remarried Nikhilesh uncle three years ago, within a year of getting a divorce from her daddy. Arindam had been born within ten months of Ma’s marriage. Teetai did not know what irreconcilable differences were, or why a divorce by “mutual consent” was considered amicable, when many a night the six-year-old had awoken to fierce agitated whispers, that became suppressed shouts. She had, at that tender age, witnessed pillows wet with tears as her mother hurriedly turned away her face and buried it into their softness.
Daddy had looked sadder than anyone she knew, the day he had hurriedly packed a briefcase ,hugged her tight, then abruptly let go and left the flat.
Now that Teetai was nine and had a little brother and a good-natured jovial stepdad along with her beloved dad, things were not so bad.
Still, she wondered at night, with the lights out with memories of racing with her papa and mama in the Lalbagh Botanical gardens, down the slippery slope of a black granite hill,
Why irreconcilable differences could not be solved. Dida, her grandmother had finally told her it meant problems that could not be solved, between two people who loved each other but could not be together.
Teetai remembered how her mother blushed whenever daddy teased her or put an arm on her shoulder, or readjusted her Bindi, “Your third evil eye darling,” and she would indignantly swipe her husband with her pallu. (Sari border pleats). They had seemed such great friends, better friends than she and her bestie Manyata. Why couldn’t they make up their quarrel, whatever it was?
She squabbled so often with Manyata, but generally it took a week for them to get thick as thieves again.
So, when she had broached this tentatively to ma, two years ago, Ma had carefully put down her six-month-old baby brother down on the crib to explain.
“Teetai my child. I am your daddy’s best friend. And he is mine. And we always will be. Because we made a gem together mamoni, (an endearment), so we have to always guide and love you together with all our might.” With a long thoughtful pause ma had bent down to whisper in a low voice.
“But I married your little brother Arindam’s daddy, and now he is my new husband. So, we are a family now, and your daddy is also a part of it, but he stays in another house now my dear.”
“I guess, you can’t have two daddies under the same roof?” seven-year-old Teetai had asked, her voice quavering.
“No ma, (In a diminutive sense) her mother’s voice too had trembled, and she had turned away her chin shaking slightly.
And Teetai had wised up at age seven, vowed not to ask her mother such hurtful questions again.
But inside her heart, a joyous flower bloomed and bled simultaneously.
“But ma loves my daddy still. So much that she is crying.”
Now the little nine-year-old girl swiftly put on her running shoes and stepped outside with her dad in tow, turning only to make sure the apartment door had safely auto locked.
Her ma and Arindam would be back home later with Nikhilesh, her step-daddy whom they were meeting for tea at Flury’s.
Once there, her dad and she held hands and raced to the edge of the lake where they hired a white boat with a broad crimson line running around it. It was called Mourani. (Queen of Bees) As soon as she had hopped onto the boat refusing the majhi, (boatman’s) help, Daddy turned around to greet a young lady. Teetai recognized her. She worked at dad’s office and was a very soft-spoken pretty girl. To her astonishment, her dad handed the young lady into the boat and then followed her.
Sitting down beside her, Shivani aunty smiled and asked her how she was. Teetai stiffly replied she was well, gaping at her dad, who turned brick red. Like her mom used to, Teetai recalled, when daddy mischievously pulled on her pallu or teased her about her huge red or blue or green bindis. (Dots applied by Indian women on their foreheads.)
“You know Shivani aunty, Teetai, don’t you dear?”
As Teetai mutely nodded, her father bashfully muttered, “We are getting married in a few months Teetai, I wanted to introduce to your new mother my dear. Your Onyo ma. (Another or other mother).
Teetai felt an unaccountable urge to cry but swallowed a lump in her throat. Somehow having double set of parents seemed wasteful, an overkill.
“Baba,” (she seldom addressed her daddy in the Bengali way, as Baba, but she did so now.)
“Do you remember riding the VR machine at Science City with me?” she asked solemnly. “Do you remember the alien destroyer of planets in the Invasion of Worlds movie?”
“Yes dear. Wasn’t she the evil Queen of a confederation of planets in the Andromeda Galaxy?”
“Yes Baba, and she too had green eyes, like Shivani aunty.” Teetai flushed a little but met the gaze of her embarrassed daddy who glanced apologetically at Shivani.
Shivani smiled and replied, “Teetai how observant you are, and what a sharp memory you have, my child.”
Teetai looked shamefaced, but retorted, “How sharp your eyes and teeth are, Aunty! Why are you calling me your child?”
“Teetai, that is enough,” her father lost his patience and exploded. Teetai kept her peace, mute and desolate, like a mouse for the rest of the outing, tears perilously close to seeping out of her lashes.
Both Shivani and her daddy tried hard to entice her back into good graces with ice-creams and lollipops and Shivani even whipped out a present for her. A book.
“Roald Dahl’s Three Witches!” I have read it. Seen the movie too. Shivani Aunty, is it true witches really cannot stand children? Do they turn them into rats? Do I smell bad to you?”
Shivani smiled ruefully and pursed her lips, looking sideways at her dad. Then she got up and walked away.
“Teetai. I am surprised. You like Nikhilesh uncle. But not poor sweet Shivani who is my friend and soon to be your mother?”
“He didn’t leave Ma. You did.” Teetai spat out. “ He joined ma and me. He is part of us. But Shivani aunty maybe will take over your house and stop me from visiting at all ... I mean, who knows if she is even human?” Teetai was adamant, unmoved, clutching desperately at straws of childish reasons.
“Who knows if Arindam and his dad Nikhilesh are human? That man is a cold calculating number cruncher! Android! ” Dad said in exasperation. “You are in the fourth grade, Teetai. You should know better.”
At this impasse father and daughter remained stalled when Shivani strolled up to them, her moon face beaming and her eyes lit with amusement. In her hands, she held three huge cones filled with candy floss, one each of the plain white, pink and the rainbow variety,
“So, who wants to have some candy floss, from this evil witch?”, She smiled wickedly, and rolled her eyes comically. Even Teetai could not keep a straight face as Shivani pounced on her with an Abra Ca Dabra. Sheepishly, she picked the rainbow-colored candy floss, blushing her thanks.
Over their cones, dad and Shivani aunty exchanged relieved meaningful glances, love oozing from Shivani’s eyes, and gratitude and admiration from dad’s.
Teetai once again felt nauseated, as if indeed there was an evil stench in the air.
At night she looked up at a huge creamy beige moon from her bedroom window, and wondered, “Is it the other way round? Can children sniff out evil and is it witches, who smell so ugh, that you can’t help but detect them and feel revolted?”
As she fell to sleep, her last thought was a rational protest, I never noticed any odor on her, witchy or otherwise, till Baba called her my Onyoma!
In the bedroom of her flat on Mayfair Road, Shivani ended the day as usual with prayers in front of her tiny brass idol of some unnamed goddess. She had changed into a red sheath and let her hair down around her face. It was a loose, thick, and luxurious mane of crinkled black waves. And now the pretty girl looked just a tad ominous. She had applied a small smear of ash upon her forehead. As she looked rapt into the emerald eyes of the nude brass figurine, squatting upon its brass pedestal, the stone eyes seemed to glimmer, from a faint crimson sparkle in her own.
“She is suitable. I will say a definite yes to her father after all, my mother. And she can perpetuate your line, long after I am gone.”
She prostrated herself to the plump deity and then switched off all the lights and went to bed.