I was told by my grandfather, Boris, that the man with my mother in the only picture of hers hanging over the mantelpiece was my father and I believed that, till I was nine. The man who told me stories about my dad died two days before I turned nine. And the next day I was told by my mother that he was not my grandfather. He was her professor and our landlord. That we lived off the old man’s gratuity fund. Now that he’s gone we were broke.
Two days later, on my 9th birthday we boarded a flight bound to Bombay. My mother took the job Boris had arranged for her before he died. I didn’t ask anything about him anymore and nor about the man in the photo, not because she thought I was angry but because I was afraid to know more. Already I knew so much about myself, none of which turned out to be true.
At school in Bombay, I met Bobby. Bobby’s parents were divorced and were battling for the custody of their only child. His mother was getting married for the second time. He cried all the while he told me this, expecting me to sympathize just like everybody else. But I was jealous. He had two dads while I had none.
When I told about Bobby at home, I narrated to my mom the story just like he had narrated to me. She seemed interested in Bobby but not in the story. But later at dinner she told me another story about a dog she once had. After he died, she never got another one. Sitting at that dinner table that night, I thought she was talking out of context. Sitting at a dinner table a decade and a half later, it feels like she was talking so much in context then. But how was a nine year old supposed to know the transliteration.
Bobby and his two dads were never again a problem for me. Behind whatever they showed to everybody else, they had a mutual understanding of hatred. Besides I always hung out with Bobby and him with one of his two dads.
I met Binayak in 1996, two years after Boris left. That year Bobby shifted schools moving to another side of the city. His mother won his custody and he left to live with her. With Bobby gone in the afternoons after school I had nothing to do so I signed up for dancing lessons.
Every afternoon after my dance classes the 10 minute ride home was preceded by a one hour wait for the ride, one of the discrete features of single mothers. They are always in a rush but never on time. But one day someone came to get me on time, Binayak.
He was one of those ad film makers who would put a father and a daughter in the same commercial frame to sell gold faster. He was a lousy driver just like Boris, patted his beard just like him and had a last name somewhat similar to his first, Borse. He moved in with his wife in the apartment next to us a week or so ago. His wife stayed mostly locked away working alone or with mom. She was a painter so I made her do all my school projects. And she happily did.
I started spending almost all my holidays with Binayak. With him it was just like with Boris. Every thing was pretty much the same. He had me believing everything he said. I rushed home everyday to tell him what happened in school. The only thing annoying about him was that he was always teaching things. I wondered how his kids stood him. There were pictures of them adorning the living hall wall. “Well, they are not ours,” he said one day when I asked where they were. “They are other’s kids we wished were ours.” In my last year at school, a letter from Yale law was sent to our address announcing my acceptance. That was the only year I had cut a cake twice with my name written over it.
That letter changed everything. Four years at Yale Law was a herald of the life I was to live thereafter and the life I was going to leave behind.
So I proposed to Binayak.
I selfishly asked him to marry my mother, so that I could have a life abroad. His reply, the state of India didn’t permit it. He was already in a marriage something he did not want to get out of. Maybe he figured out that I didn’t need a stepdad anymore, rather a stepfather. I never wanted mom to have a marriage, I just wanted her to have a wedding. I doubt she ever had one.
Binayak and his wife never talked to me again or to my mother. One week after the proposal they moved out. The proposal might have been a slap on his fatherhood but the empty apartment hurt more. I left Bombay for Boston the next month.
Two days before my 20th birthday I visited Boris for one last favour. I needed that photo which hung over our mantelpiece to find out about my dad.
But then I found out about him. Boris sold stories for a living. One or two of them, he sold it to me.
The author is a 19 year old student of history studying at Hansraj College. She is one of those who Oscar Wilde would have described as in the gutter but still looking out at the stars. She loves the arts. When she is not studying history and getting worried about political issues in the campus, she writes or clicks pictures.