Anita and Sameer sat on the couch as Uncle V spoke to them like a general briefing his troops. Anita refused to look at him, her face twisted into vehement indignation but her lowered eyes betrayed the shame inside. Sameer looked up at Uncle like a loyal soldier. The rift was obvious, the only thing holding them together was a common goal.
S: So what now?
Uncle V: I’ve called the police. We’re going to form a search team and comb the entire district down. He’s a kid. How far could he have gone? How much money do you think he has?
S: He has a weekly allowance, though I never asked him what he does with it. We gave him 100 rupees a week.
Uncle V: And since when?
S: I don’t remember! At least a year.
Uncle V’s phone rang.
Uncle V: Vinayak here. Yes good you’re here. No no, no need to come up, we’ll just be wasting time. I’m coming downstairs. How many cars did you get? Good good, I’ll come downstairs and tell you the plan. We’re leaving right now.
Listen Anita, I know you’re very angry and I know you probably don’t want to talk to anyone right now. But you should know that Sameer did a very brave thing. We WILL find your son and when we do, I think Sameer deserves a word of appreciation.
Uncle V was running out of patience and he made it clear. He grabbed his pipe and hurried out of the house.
“But they never found you?” asked Carolyn.
Unlike her big, blue eyes, my throat was as dry as a desert. I emptied my glass of Scotch and looked at her, ready to face a barrage of questions.
“No they did not ma’am” I clarified.
“Oh. Where did you go? How did you hide? And where does this orphanage come into the picture?”
This was just the beginning.
“I had read about this orphanage many times. Pratyush’s parents donated a lot of money to it. It helped children in distress, who had been physically and sexually abused. I took a bus to Beregai, a small village near Bangalore, and went up to the orphanage. I had brought a change of clothes, I was in my school uniform after all. I even had my books and identity card. I couldn’t pretend to be someone else. I really didn’t know what to do. I was so sure that whoever ran the orphanage would hand me over to the police and I’d have to go back to my wretched life. But I was wrong.”
A waiter interrupted me asking for our last orders. Carolyn mumbled something, far too absorbed in the story of my life and brushed him aside.
“Yes Akshay, go on go on”
“The orphanage was run by Bhushan Sir. Tall grey haired man with both a genial smile and an air of discipline around him. First, he didn’t ask me any questions. He just smiled and took me in. Gave me some dinner, a bed to sleep on, tucked me in and said, sleep today, we’ll talk tomorrow, it’s late already. He woke me early, gave me a toothbrush and we had breakfast together in his room. That’s when I told him everything.”
“Everything? What do you mean?”
“Everything I told you. About Anita’s abortion. About Sameer’s habits. About Buddy, the dog I almost had. About Haritha, Asha’s sister who was fired because she was ugly. He listened patiently and then I heard the words I was dreading. My story was most unusual, he said, but running away from home was not the solution. There were worried relatives and an entire police force looking for me. I would have to go back immediately.”
Another sip of my newly arrived drink and a glance at my watch. An hour for the place to close.
“I asked him, if parents can leave infants in dumpsters, if they sell them to pimps and camel racers and begging rackets, why can’t children run away from their parents? He grew quite agitated, he told me I knew nothing about those children and how they felt. I distinctly remember how my ears grew warm and how I fought my tears off. We spoke for more than an hour and came to an agreement. If the police knocked on his door, he’d hand me over. Otherwise, I was welcome. I was more than happy.”
“And the police never came?”
“I don’t know. People say Bhushan Sir lied to them. I don’t think so, he was a strict man.”
“But if you ran away, how did you find out about everything that went on at home?”
I had recited my story to so many charities that no question ever caught me off guard now.
“5 or 6 years ago, I read in the papers that Uncle Vinayak had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I met him in the hospital. I loved and respected him far too much to let him go. He was surprised to see me, but insisted I tell him my part of the story. I did, and I wished he would tell me his too. But he was an old, sick man who could barely speak. He passed away 7 months after I met him. He left a large sum of money for the orphanage and, importantly, his journal. I still have it in fact.”
I always kept Uncle V’s journal with me. People loved to see it and read it and touch it. It was majestic, his handwriting was royal. It made me proud.
“Why didn’t your Uncle tell your parents you were alive?”
“They had relocated to the US. They had moved on. Sameer and Anita were happier together. I didn’t want to…”
“I see” Carolyn interrupted, waving off my explanation “So let’s get to business, about the orphanage…”.
As professional as she tried to sound, her voice was still cracked and her hands still cold and nervous. My story did this to people.
“Yes ma’am of course, I grew very close to Bhushan Sir and helped him manage the place. I continued studying at the local school too. I teach there nowadays. Sir passed away in 2005, he was 66. It was huge loss to the orphanage. The entire place grew morose and I couldn’t bear to see it that way. I was 23 then, and decided to step up and run the place. The trust was indifferent. As long as we didn’t bug them for more funds, they had no problems with us. But the money coming through was meagre. We were falling short of space and food and clothes and toothbrushes. It was then I decided to go out and look for funds all alone. It was during this time when I wrote to your father, I’ve read a lot about him in the papers and the money he has invested in rural India. He runs a honest business and…”
“That should be quite enough Akshay…”
I was taken aback. What did she mean?
“… I think I’ve heard enough. You deserve all the help you can get. You’ve fought for yourself and your friends.”
She slipped a hand into mine.
“We’re here to help and you don’t need to worry. I will arrange a meeting, and tell them your story in advance. I don’t think you want to see the board of such a big company cry like a bunch of little girls.”
She giggled through her tears.
“Can we meet again?” she asked me, “over something more… more… you know… a dinner, say?”
“I think you’ve had too much to drink, ma’am”
“I think you need to shut up Akshay.”
“Alright alright, but I have flight tomorrow morning. At 10 AM, and I’ll be gone for 2 weeks.”
“Then tonight is all we have.” she said, pulling me off my barstool and towards the lobby of the hotel.
Yes Carolyn, you’re right. Tonight is all we have. Because tomorrow morning I’ll be in another city. Tomorrow morning I’ll have another name. Tomorrow morning I’ll be with another woman. In another hotel. Talking about a different orphanage. In a different village.
But reciting the same story. And running the same scam.