The house had once swarmed with many occupants; the husband and wife had given birth to five daughters. The youngest child presented a small difference among the five; a developmental disability of the brain. And fifteen years later, the Fifth brought about another difference; she became the only companion the man had after his wife’s demise. The rest had re-located to different parts of the globe in marriage and time.
The father did his best to find a solution to his daughter’s ill fate. No cure seemed to befall the Fifth even after her father’s generous offerings in temples in search of a divine elixir. Doctors did their best to diagnose the problem, but to no avail. All these efforts just meant costs which the father couldn’t afford on the long run. A point arrived when the Father had to let go of his hope for a cure and resign his daughter’s future to fate.
With diminished hope came renewed vision to the Father. He decided it was necessary to teach his child the art of surviving and progressing no matter what. If this is how He intended to keep her then there must be good reason for it, he consoled himself. Just the utilitarian tasks were taught to the Fifth. The idea was to make her feel comfortable with herself and live independently.
But it was easier said than done. The tutorials ran for hours together. Grabbing her attention to one particular thing was in itself a huge task. She constantly drifted from one topic to other, and also grew cranky if asked to stay put in a place for more than a minute. It was an easy option to just let go of her and ask her to remain as she was, but he never sought it. As age accumulated on both sides, he realized it was going to be hard to keep up the energy as they did now for ever. He even grew scared that he might not live enough to complete teaching her the essentials and that would be a shame on his part and an add-on curse on her. With each of these passing thought, the course got speedier.
He tried his best not to be impatient with her and scold her. But frustration did catch up with him unknowingly. It surprised him how she could forget his often repeated instructions. Her forgetfulness astonished him and he re-affirmed it from her each time she committed a mistake. Did you really forget that? Remember I told you yesterday the match box is kept here? You should turn off the gas stove like this when you see the milk boil? Not all questions were answered right, but an improvement was observed over a course of time.
Slowly she learnt to clean herself, move her limbs with better co-ordination and even speak a few words which seemed completely authentic to her father’s ears but remained a mumble for the rest. He carefully watched over every single movement of hers so that no mistake would hurt her.
He hid in a corner one day to see how she reacted when left alone. She went frantic at first, wailed loudly and eventually ran around the house looking for him. When the search turned vain, she sat in the middle of the hall and stared indefinitely at the entrance gate awaiting a familiar figure to open it. He came out of hiding and tip toed his way to the back door, scaled the back wall and presented himself at the main gate with a smile which seemed to make the tears in his daughter’s eyes vanish in no time.
He improvised this game day by day, prolonging the time of his return, making her get used to her loneliness. And progress it seemed to him, as she gave up the practice of waiting for him and went on with her chores, unmindful of the time of his return. Though happy with progress she made, his heart felt heavy thinking about the indifference his presence would make to her soon.
Sensing her progress towards living skills, he was convinced that the day was not far when his child would be normal again. All in good time, he thought to himself. He soon replaced the plastic knifes in the kitchen with steel knifes which she used to cut vegetables confidently, though incongruently. Her hands shook less prominently and she could retain her mental attention on a specific item for a longer period of time. He reduced his indulgence in her activities and turned less judgmental with each passing day allowing her to live on her own.
The legibility of her spoken words too seemed to improve drastically. He felt anyone now could strike a regular conversation with his daughter, which was disproved the first day he sent her to buy vegetables where the vendor didn’t seem to distinguish her onion from brinjal. But it didn’t stop him from accompanying her to the market next day and squarely placed the blame on the hearing of the vendor rather on his daughter’s articulation. All the while when her father argued with the vendor, she laughed heartily for no particular reason. She even dragged passers-by by their hands and made them join the argument. And on the way back she had handed the carry bag to him while she moved in a discordant manner throughout the walk, attracting the attention of viewers. He could sense that the inharmonious walk was intentional rather than inflicted, so he left it to run its whole course.
Late in the night it struck his mind that his daughter’s unusual moves while walking back home in the evening had been an attempt at dancing. And dance she did, he yelled in the middle of the night. It dawned upon him that he could count many times she had been out of the house with his fingers, and the journey outside had brought a shine to her mood. He couldn’t recollect any reason other than the possible public scrutiny he might have faced to resist her from stepping outside and was ashamed of it. Now all that didn’t matter anymore.
The very next morning, after a quick breakfast, they headed for the sea. He curiously stared at her to notice her first reaction of the view, which was astonishment followed by a yelp of joy. He held back tears while he took her by her hands while placing their feet together on the cold sheet of water for the first time. And later she jumped up down and even rolled along the shore for a long time. The cold weather inadvertently urged her to urinate in the sea, which drew unpleasant faces from the public. But it didn’t matter to the father anymore. He smiled at her nervous face and she then smiled back. The calm and vast expanse of the ocean’s heart would obviously not mind the unknowing minor offence of his guileless daughter, who until this day had never been out of her imprisonment, thanks to her ungrateful father, he thought.
The sea turned out to be the refuge for the father and daughter in the forthcoming days. The view of it brought an until-then unknown sense of peace to the former and an open field of possibilities of the many forms of joy for the latter. A week into the trip, she no longer waited for her father to accompany her to the water. The moment she alighted from the bus, she hobbled towards the sea with all her energy. The father did his best to catch up with her but clearly lagged behind. She would then jump into the sea, and played the regular game of running away from the approaching water and sprint back to catch the receding water. All the while, he sat by the shore watching her. And when it was about ten minutes away from leaving, she would plead with him to stay longer and would even drag him to the water and try convincing him that the sea was a much better place to stay than go home. Some days he was convinced.
A year later, the father had a peaceful passing away in his sleep. The immensity of the loss never seemed to enter her throughout the day. She wondered why he wouldn’t wake up in the morning. She had tapped her neighbor’s door for enquiring, who were more than willing to help with the proceedings. A coconut tree leaf bed was prepared and on it was laid her father, motionless but with a faint smile on his face. She continued to request her father to wake up so they could head for the beach, but all that seemed to go unheeded. She stood nonplussed when she was asked to look into her father’s face for one last time. It still seemed plausible for her to visit him again later, wherever he was headed to.
In the evening, she suddenly recollected the day her father had disclosed the secret behind the hide and seek game he played on her years ago. She headed to his hide out place but found it empty. She prepared dinner for two in the night. She placed the rice and curry in her father’s plate, and some curd in a separate cup, as was usual. She kept the main door open and awaited his return. He would come back with a present, she thought. She was certain the gift was going to be something big as it had been a very long time since he left. She kept staring at the gate for a long time and without her knowing, fell asleep. The next morning, like the many other days that followed, she headed to the sea. Alone.