saw her sitting in her mother’s lap with her disheveled hair that looked unkempt, unwashed and crying for a clip. She looked at me with her brown and big but blank eyes without any feeling of warmth in them. She showed no recognition of me and rightly so for I had not met her for almost three years now. She must be nine, I mused, but appeared physically not older than a five-year-old kid. Getting close to her with an urgency to open a conversation I found she had not really grown up mentally and was kind of retarded. I thought I must pity her condition but doing that was just taking pity on myself. Instead I extended my hand that contained a pack of cherry chocolates, which she used to lap up as a young kid. She did not show any eagerness to take it.

I had known Mahesh from my early college days when we had just started life out of school and were kind of liberated guys out to get at the big bad world. We had spent a hectic college schedule of studies together and quite evenings too whenever we were sort of pensive for one reason or the other. Two years at junior college followed by three years of graduation brought us quite close to each other so much so we knew each other’s secrets so well. We visited each other’s homes and treated all as our family that brought binding ties, which we vowed would stay for the rest of our lives. What we could not do together though was to take up our professions that differed, after we finished college. Mahesh preferred to take up Engineering as his choice of study and I ended up taking Medicine and Surgery. We both attended professional colleges in two different cities with almost a thousand milestones between them. We had no access to mobile phones those days and did hardly speak on regular basis during this period. We only met when we got to our homes in Kashmir during a vacation or a family celebration on either side. That is when we splurged on all our resources and made best of the time lost out in between.

Mahesh took up his job as an Assistant Engineer with the Public Works Division at Srinagar after graduating and I did a stint at the Medical University hospital for my internship for a year before taking up Master’s Course in Surgery that continued for another two years. Mahesh got married to a beautiful homely girl and I took special leave of absence from my studies to attend the wedding at Srinagar. I had to wait to find a soul mate for myself until after I had finished rest of the course and was in no hurry. Once I had my professional degree I wanted to specialize in some field in Surgery and opted for Neurology for which I sought admission at the Boston Medical College at Massachusetts, USA. Before departure for the US, I went to look up my family at Srinagar and also visited my friend Mahesh, his beautiful wife Monica and his newly born daughter Ayesha. She was a cuddly little kid and seemed active and lively with a big grin on her face. I would see her almost every year thereafter whenever I visited my parents at Srinagar. I had still not married and was working with the Massachusetts General Hospital after completing my studies. Somehow I felt marriage was not an important agenda for me and avoided it for as long as I could afford. Mom and dad made oblique references to the importance of marriage but I requested them to wait until I was ready.

It was during the second year of my stay at Boston that I invited my dear friend and his family to visit me in USA and they agreed to come. We spent a good time together and visited historical places in Boston that included walking the famous Freedom Trail and a trip to the university town at Cambridge. We drove up to the nearby White Mountains and also spent a leisurely day at Lake Winniepesauke. We took a trip to New York and a vacation in the Great Lakes region including the sights at Niagara Falls, places that even I had been waiting to see. Little Ayesha got closer to me during this period and occupied a vacant space in my heart. I found myself very attached to the kid as if she was my own blood and she reciprocated with all her tantrums and chirpy manner. I found she liked to wag her ponytail and giggle at all the jokes we adults made. She became addicted to cherry chocolates that I usually bought her whenever we went out for shopping. I found Monica and Mahesh very much in love and they were kind of inseparable. All these days in the US Monica took care of our food and she cooked great Kashmiri meals for us. That was something I had been missing all along in the US. Monica and Mahesh expressed their intention to send Ayesha to school soon after their return to Srinagar.

It did not snow at Srinagar the whole month of December as it normally does. The year was 1989 and there was some tension all around with one community asking the other to leave the city or convert to their faith. My mom and dad felt unsafe and they expressed their desire to leave the place and so I called them to stay with me in the US. My friend continued there with his family for he had a job that he could not just give up. It was on the 29th December when my friend and his wife had retired for the night that some hard knocking at their door drew their attention and when my friend opened the door to investigate a hail of bullets shattered his body and he fell at the door itself spewing blood from the bullet holes. His wife and parents rushed to the spot at the commotion and they saw the carnage with no sign of the assailants anywhere. Ayesha also saw the blood splattered body of her dad and she could take it no more and went into a seizure from which she did not recover for a very long time. The family went into mourning and we at Boston learnt about the incident much later. Not that I would have been able to avert the tragedy but remaining close at this time would perhaps have given some solace to the bereaved family. I had lost my friend forever. Peace unto the loving soul.

After things settled a bit in Kashmir my parents wanted to go back and restart their life in the strife torn city. They felt kind of lonely and withdrawn and very much wanted their life back the way it was prior to their hasty departure. They missed their friends and relatives with whom they had their bonds. My being busy with my profession almost all day unnerved them and left them lonely through long periods of time. I vehemently opposed their intention but agreed that if they wanted to stay in Delhi I could arrange things. We finally settled on that issue and I went all the way to find a decent home for them at Delhi. It was an upcoming neighborhood and an apartment complex built with the participation of our community members who had faced similar trauma that my parents had gone through. I easily located an apartment for them in this complex and I was fortunate they got the company of people who could understand their pain and suffering at this juncture of their life. They soon found new friends and kind of settled in the new surroundings. In search of who is who in the apartment complex we came across the family of my dear departed friend Mahesh, whose parents had taken shelter likewise.
It was here that I set my eyes on Ayesha after a period of almost three years.

Mahesh’s parents had still not overcome the grief of having lost their only son and were feeling guilty of having a daughter-in-law around who was young and as good as their own daughter seeking their love and affection. They had a married daughter as well who was elder to Mahesh and was currently staying with her husband at Jammu and did visit them once in a while. They now had the memory of their son in the form of Ayesha and felt pain in watching her grow in a vegetative state and without the much desired affection of her own father. She had not recovered from her state of mind and continued to get occasional seizures. She was under medication all these months and received all possible attention they could get her. Monica just lived a mechanical life in order to look after the well being of her daughter. Having learnt about my area of activity Mahesh’s father did enquire from me if Ayesha could get better from her present condition. Not that I was waiting for a cue from him to make an observation, I had already considered ways and means to provide some kind of succor to the kid that would set her life back to normal. I found she had disturbing signs of withdrawal and was drifting apart from her social skills, which were otherwise normal. She had kind of learning disabilities that could be attributed to damage in her nervous system. I knew she had to be put under intense observation over a period of time before starting on a course of treatment. I did not have that much time and had to return to my job at Boston. The best I could do was to take the kid along with me and see what help I could provide at my own hospital in the US with help from my friends and associates. So the verdict was out and it was decided I do just that and take the kid to US. I left for Boston the next week with a promise to send papers across that would help Monica and her daughter to get a VISA for the treatment and a new lease of life for Ayesha.

And thus began a new chapter of my life.

Looking back at the events, I feel it was destiny rather than a resolution of remedies that gave a new meaning to my life. I became a father to Ayesha and a husband to her mother and a savior to my dead friend to have taken up the responsibility of his family and make them my own. It was an arrangement my parents and Mahesh’s parents jointly made within a few months of Monica’s arrival in the US after taking Monica’s and my views into account as well. For me it was an arrangement that saved me from the trauma of taking a decision about my marriage with someone whom I did not really link up with. We had, of course, to go back to Delhi to tie the knot and obtain a proper license to the marriage. There were witnesses to our marriage from across the spectrum of our families and a proper traditional ceremony was performed. Ayesha looked on as though it did not really matter what was happening. She was in a state of mind that did not register the full impact of our decision. She was just a mute spectator to the drama unfolding around her.

Marriage is such a tricky thing for some, particularly for the generation that has grown a bit older, that the nuances of it are not really understood in its totality. I have now figured out that if you have to marry you should do so when you are in your mid to late twenties rather than defer it until you get too old to accept dilution of your own authority that you grow up with as you age. Couples marrying young have aspirations while those marrying late carry apprehension. I learnt about it all after I married Monica. Both of us had gone past the age of innocence when acceptance of each other is deemed beautiful. Even though when approached for the proposal both Monica and I had given our consent it still held a barrier that required to be overcome. May be it was all in the mind. May be we required some external help to break the ice. After marriage I figured that we were facing the dilemma for different reasons. Monica for having to change her allegiance to a different male after losing her mate and I for still not having adjusted to someone else in my life, particularly the one whom I knew belonged to a close friend. But we lived on together acknowledging each other at times but still not open at heart, as wedded people should be. What we concentrated on though was a common bond, that of Ayesha. She was showing good results with the therapy that she was getting at the hospital and I was becoming more confident she would pull through the ordeal. May be it was this common bond that brought the breakthrough for both of us one day. It was the event of our first marriage anniversary that broke the barrier between us and for the first time Monica and me ever touched each other and looked in each other’s eyes with love. There was an instant bonding that took over and magical things started to happen.

We suddenly realized we were in love.

Ayesha is celebrating her 24th birthday today and has turned out to be quite a girl who is eagerly sought out for her mature handling of issues relating to the nursing management at the hospital where she herself was a patient not very long ago. Her period of training was not difficult for the reason that she had already gone through a process of trauma and was responsive to the needs of those who required good nursing to help them back to a healthy normal life. She has a younger sister Anayana who follows her dictates without raising any issues as long as she gets her quota of Cherry Chocolates before taking her bus to school. Monica still makes the best Kashmiri dishes she is known around for in her circle in Boston and the best companion by any standards for a busy husband.

Author’s Note:

I happened to watch a TV travel show last week where the host pointed out that in some types of Cherry Chocolates the cherry is laced with liquor that gushes out as you chew on the chocolate. I researched the Internet and found out that indeed in some chocolate types bourbon or rum is used. It was no intention of mine to let my characters Ayesha and Anayana get addicted to an alcoholic beverage. My Cherry Chocolates are alcohol free.

B. L. Dhar was born and educated at Srinagar. Did Master's degree in Mathematics. Took up appointment with the Civil Aviation Sector of the G.O.I. as a gazzetted officer and later joined the PSU, Airports Authority of India (AAI) from where he retired as General Manager in 2000.

At present residing at Delhi with frequent visits to the US and Europe where his kith and kin reside. Has interest in writing.

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