THREE days ago, my daughter stumped me with a simple question, "Which was the worst day of your life?"
The worst day of my life? "Umm, umm," I sputtered, groping for an appropriate response. There had been no losses in the immediate family, finances were in order, no health issue kept me up at night, and domestic tranquility was intact. Yes, there had been ups and downs, but which life didn't have any? But a serious tragedy? No. None at all.
Rishila wasn't satisfied. She threw another one straight at me, "Okay then, the happiest day?" This one was easy. I beamed, "The day we had you." "No, seriously," she frowned as she munched on a badly burnt toast. I didn't know why she liked them so charred when everyone else preferred them toasted.
"I am serious," I said. Rishila needed a more dramatic answer. She waited for me to think of a bigger event. There wasn't any. When I couldn't come up with a befitting reply, I simply blurted out my trademark, "200% serious!" Rishila shrugged, exactly like her mother, and chose to give up the interrogation for the day. I was used to her inquisitive mind but always came up short, trying to match it with the desired wit.
“Why aren't camels short?" "What if there were no chocolates?" "Why don't we live to be a thousand?" The list was endless. Rishila was a sixteen-year-old in a hurry. Juggling school, a million
friends, both palpable and electronic, and storing a horde of information on what's in, what's out - boy, didn't she have a lot on her plate? She was growing into a sensitive young lady but exuded a quiet strength. And with a quest to know every little detail about everything around her, she was an enigma mushrooming every single day.
I thanked my lucky stars. She had suddenly remembered something more important, as I lay pinned with her query. The best day of my life? I pondered as she dashed upstairs to her room. My voice confirming, 'the day we had you' kept ringing in my ears. It was the truth, now. But sixteen years ago, things were different.
Sixteen years ago, I was Satadru Ray, a clerk in a nationalized bank in
the city of Calcutta, miles away from Canada - in India. Sixteen years
ago, my wife, Bhagyawati woke at three every morning, five days a
week to cook and pack the most delicious lunch for delivery to offices in
the central business district. As I geared up for my first steaming cup of
tea in the morning, twin delivery boys, Robin and Mohin would arrive,
humungous smiles lighting their rotund faces. They were punctual
couriers, brothers from the same mother, who made certain that a couple
of hundred famished office-goers never went hungry.
"You'll split your cheeks," I cautioned them every day. But they ignored my warning and smiled harder. We were content, but the absence of a child running around the house gnawed away at
Bhagyawati's very being. Before we knew it, we had been married for twelve years and there was no baby in sight. After nights and nights of serious discussions, Bhagyawati finally convinced me to adopt. My initial argument, about turning into mere caretakers instead of being real parents, was successfully rubbished by my diligent wife.
I wanted Bhagyawati to be happy and decided to go along with her plan. The entire world thought I was agog with the inclusion. But in reality, I felt strangely gelid when I first saw a six-month-old Rishila at an orphanage in the outskirts of the city. Her nose dripped down her face like melted ice cream and she had just bit the hand that fed her from a bottle. "A sign of things to come," I thought uncharitably. But that day, Rishila came home and changed our lives forever.
Bhagyawati extracted a promise from me. I would have to forget that Rishila was adopted. I had to believe she was our very own. I thought it was only fair that the child be exposed to the truth while Bhagyawati was convinced that such a revelation could not yield healthy results. It would form deep fissures in the bond we meticulously built over time. "We are her parents. This is her truth. And let this be our truth," she presented her case vehemently. I didn't really care and agreed without a fuss. I never knew why, and how, and when my concealed indifference had turned into possessive love for the little entity. Rishila made our home resplendent, like the sky on a starlit night. I rushed back from work
each day, only to fill my ears with the music of her gibberish. I exhausted myself by fulfilling her every whim. I was alive in a whole new way. Soon enough, we forgot that Rishila was adopted.
Her assimilation into the Ray household was complete. Rishila was six when Bhagyawati had a tiff with our next door neighbour, Priyali. It irked Bhagyawati no end that Priyali kept borrowing money from her on some pretext or the other.
Being generous in nature she kept doing her bit to assist until it turned into a ritual. One day when Priyali returned with a fresh demand, Bhagyawati reminded her that she already owed us a lot of our hard-earned money. Priyali did not appreciate the sinewy observation and left, suitably scorned. A few days after the verbal altercation with Priyali, Bhagyawati and I were quietly sipping tea on a Sunday morning, browsing different sections of the same newspaper, still crisp and hot off the press.
Suddenly Rishila walked in, visibly distressed. She had been playing with Neela, Priyali's daughter. "What's the matter?" Bhagyawati asked her without expressing any real concern. Rishila would often have serious fights with Neela and then become best friends the very next day. But when she asked
her mother if she was indeed our child, Bhagyawati was aghast. "Of course, you are!" She threw away the newspaper and rushed to take our vulnerable little girl in her arms. "Then why did Aunt Priyali say that you found me on the street?" Rishila inquired innocently, her eyes glistening with tears. Bhagyawati brushed off the incident as a dirty prank and Rishila, satisfied with her mother's assurance about her real identity ceased to grieve within minutes.
Rue dispelled, she rushed towards the television and turned it on. Enraged, I stood up, ready to confront my errant neighbour for her nasty revenge when Bhagyawati said softly, "How many mouths will you shut and for how long?" "What do you mean?" I stopped in my tracks. Satisfied that Rishila was distracted by her favourite cartoon, Bhagyawati continued, "Today it's Priyali, tomorrow it'll be someone else." "So should I say nothing to that snake in a sari?" I fumed. "It's time for us to leave," Bhagyawati announced calmly. "Are you out of your mind? Why should we leave our house?" “I'm not talking about the house," Bhagyawati locked her eyes with mine. "I don't understand," I frowned.
"Even if we leave the neighbourhood or the city, it won't be easy keeping the truth from her." "What are you proposing?" I was lost. "Leaving the country." That was it. It was that simple. Give up our soil forever and make a fresh start? The idea seemed suicidal. But Bhagyawati held on and finally I let go.
Over a decade later, Satadru Ray and Bhagyawati Ray were established as Steve and Baggy Ray - citizens of Canada. The initial trials of settling down had been one too many. My English was a late
night comedian's delight and my accent often mocked. Baggy was worse off for she had to translateher thoughts from her native tongue. By the time she could form complete sentences her audience usually walked away. I worked two jobs, accepted minimum wages with a smile, and bore the fierce cold with borrowed clothing from strangers. But it had all worked out in the end.
The land was divine, the people beautiful. We were proud to belong. No one knew Rishila was adopted. No one asked uncomfortable questions. And with the passage of time, we forgot the truth. Today was turning out to be the worst day of my life. An hour ago, a documentary on TV reinforced my thoughts of the past three days, after Rishila asked me that question. The subject dealt with unpleasant truths some families had concealed from their children. It was only a documentary but it rattled my existence. The more I thought about it, I was convinced it was time for Rishila to confront the truth. Disease, accidents, predators, the Internet - we could lose our children to any of
these. But my dilemma was unique. I was afraid to lose my child to the truth. Rishila. My little girl. How did she grow up so fast? Hadn't I taught her to side with the truth, so that the truth would never leave her side? Wide-eyed, she would listen while I lectured, "Mahatma Gandhi's nationality was not important. He was an idea. That's why the world embraced his quest for truth." But what had I done? I had kept Rishila's biggest truth from her. But there was still hope. I could still fix it.
I expected serious resistance from Baggy. To my great relief, she agreed at once. We knew the risk, but decided to embrace the truth. Baggy volunteered, "Do you want me to do it?" "I'd like to." I had to earn my redemption. At the dining table, I was sweating. I began, "Rishila, we don't know what kind of parents we've been. A new country, new ways, new language. It was overwhelming in the beginning." "I know, Dad. You're my heroes." Rishila was naive. She didn't know what was on the anvil. She rolled up some noodles expertly in her fork, dipped it in a spicy sauce, put it in her mouth, and closed her eyes. "But we didn't bow out. We dived straight into the challenge," I continued.
"I know." "We fell on our faces. Many times. But even with bruised egos, we stood up and marched ahead." Slowly I built up the strength to get to the painful moment. "You're the best, Dad," she said sincerely and added, "And Mom." "You gave us the strength, Rishila," Baggy joined in. "Thanks, Mom." Rishila continued to chomp on the noodles. "And today, you have given us the strength to speak the truth."
I was ready. "What is it, Dad?" Rishila laid down the fork on her plate and looked straight at me. This was it. In the sweetest tone, I was about to unveil her ultimate truth and fracture her equilibrium forever. "We adopted you," I whimpered. Rishila frowned a little and my heart skipped a dozen consecutive beats. The noodles from Baggy's fork slipped back into her plate. "Are you serious?" Rishila asked characteristically. "200%," I tried my trademark.
"Wow!" Rishila whispered. Then without saying another word she returned to her meal. She had no questions for us. When Rishila settled in her room, Baggy and I contemplated our future. "She must hate us already," I thought out aloud.
"Let's prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Baggy suggested, her hands resting over mine.
"Prepare for her to leave us and hope that she forgives us for keeping it from her for so long?" I sounded bitter. Baggy didn't know what to say. The confession had taken a toll on her. She wanted to rest. "Are you coming?" "You go ahead. I'll watch some TV." "Don't be too long." "Okay," I promised. She squeezed my shoulder and left the room. I was restless. What if Rishila decided to return to India? Would I let her go? I may have no choice. I wanted to die. Every thought cut through me like a surgeon's scalpel. I don't know when I had fallen asleep on the couch, when a soft nudge brought me back to my reality. "Wake up, Dad," I heard Rishila's gentle command.
My body was still asleep but my mind jumped to attention. "Dad?" There was a serious note in her voice. "Yeah?" I was apprehensive. I knew that tone. She was about to discuss something important. "I was adopted?" "Yes," I croaked. My mouth was dry. "So did I miss something?" she asked. I didn't know what to say. Rishila broke my early morning reverie, "Now go inside and get another hour. I'll see you in the evening." She squeezed my shoulder exactly like her mother and kissed my cheek affectionately. Then she disappeared for the day as quickly as she had appeared in our lives sixteen years ago.
I smiled like the twin couriers from Calcutta. My adoption was complete.
Sam Mukherjee is the Author of Chopped Green Chillies in Vanilla Ice Cream. His second novel, In the Name of Love will be released in the Fall of 2012. Based in Toronto, Sam is the Speechwriter for a Canadian Senator, a Senior Writer at Globalom Media and a Contributing Editor of South Asian Outlook. He acquired a Diploma in Writing from Vancouver Film School on a full-time writing scholarship.