Sabeena’s fingers ran through each contour of the picture on the table. She paused to look at the silhouette of a bigger version in the dimly lit room. It was a huge frame… sixty by twenty inches…that stood behind an olive green supercilious easy chair. The warmth of the fireplace beneath filled her heart with a sudden desire and, she tried to slide her index finger into the loop formed by the right hand of the stone-faced man standing tall in the frame, towering over “minuscule nothings”. If he hadn’t been her father who rocked her to sleep on his broad chest when she was a baby and didn’t allow his own breath to escape him from fear of waking her up, she would have probably seen him like all others…numbed by the administrative pressures of running the country’s most prestigious academic institution.
Virender Pratap had inherited a huge fortune from his father, Chaudhary Ratanjit Singh but more than the money that had come trickling down it was the responsibility of holding together “ Saharsh Public School” and the pledge of imparting unparalleled knowledge that had turned Virender Pratap into the man he was. Such a perfectionist he had become over the years that fault finding seemed an inevitable hobby. And this was really too much for Ratanjyot.
It was Sabeena who had brought about the much-needed warmth to the wedded lives of Ratanjyot and Virender. But the affection was so timed. Ratanjyot succumbed to an attack of pneumonia just a year later and all that Sabeena could ever recall of her childhood were well spun memories of her father. She was the rhythm he had ever been longing for. If there was anything personal about her “baba”, it was only Sabeena. Their father- daughter moments were anything but numbered. They would do rounds of the school play area early in the morning. Sabeena was a mere five-year-old. Yet he would teach her to push the ground hard, to start slow and then run full throttle. Stretching was her favourite part of the morning regime, particularly hanging from the monkey bars as that meant that she could jump straight into her baba’s arms. But one day there was a shift from the normal. Sabeena jumped and baba wasn’t there. He chose not to be there. Sabeena fell to the ground. He didn’t even bother to nurse her wounds. There was a “no talk” zone that Sabeena entered and it was only the next morning that baba broke the ice. But this time Sabeena didn’t wait for him to be there when she jumped. She had inherited this ability of his to accept the odds and rise above them. Surprisingly, this time round he held her once again. He had his own way of telling her that life can turn the corner when you least expect it to and these were the subtle lessons that he passed on to her.
Baba was a storehouse of knowledge. And so, he expected his school staff to match up to him. They were nothing more than droplets in the ocean. He, therefore earned the reputation of being a hard task master. His ever-waning popularity among the staff and students was largely due to him being a stricter. Sabeena could never understand why people were so averse to learn from him. For her he was an entire encyclopaedia. With baba by her side, she would hardly need a book. There were literally practical lessons all through the day. He could talk Shakespeare and Newton with equal ease. He could even predict the emergency in India and the military coup in Pakistan. He was such a political analyst and Sabeena often wondered what kept him from becoming a politician! Every fortnight there would be a new book on his shelf and Sabeena and baba would spend hours reading. Conferences would lead to arguments and a new kind of enlightenment. Of all those hard-bound covers in his study, there was one that lay locked in a chest. Sabeena longed to have access to it. It wasn’t a book. But baba guarded it with all his might.
Although baba was always by her side and even as they spent hours and days and weeks together, Sabeena somehow always longed for that fatherly hug or a pat on the back. Every time she won a prize baba would just sit and smile. He would announce it to the world but there was never a mention of it with her. She wondered if he thought that she didn’t really deserve it. She could hardly make out if he was proud enough. She wanted to peep into his heart but most often it was locked, just like the chest.
For Virender Pratap, Sabeena was the essence of his being. He had always been inexpressive and then there was this family tradition where fathers were always supposed to be FATHERS. He would just hang on…and watch from far off but he knew where his heart was. He had almost begun to believe that Sabeena would stay his little girl and the sessions of growing up would never cease.
But for how long will cocoons refuse to metamorphose. The caterpillar must eventually turn into a butterfly. The bird flies off once it grows wings. That doesn’t ever mean that the blooming flower doesn’t cherish the gardener. It just means that the process of life must happen.
In the summer of 1981 Sabeena moved to London to pursue Literature. Something snapped in baba’s heart. He let her go but couldn’t let go. His outings with tobacco increased manifold. School could fill his vacant hours but never his lonely heart. By the time Sabeena came back to him, a certain cloud had engulfed him…a realisation of sorts…of a fleeting nature so true of children, specially daughters. Despite her repeated assurances and efforts with the school, baba had decided to let his self-inflicted pain overpower him. There was a thick cover lining his lungs. Still the most expensive brands continued to be flown in. In the meantime, Sabeena penned several books, oscillating between just getting married and choosing celibacy, to help baba hang on a little longer. Neither of the two conditions was acceptable to him. It was like choosing between the devil and the deep sea. Sabeena could not get him to understand that no matter where she went, she would be his little girl.
Finally, baba breathed his last. Sabeena rested her head on his chest and he decided not to allow his breath to escape him one more time. In a moment all the information, knowledge and enlightenment…the politics and literature lay, turned to dust. She hadn’t known anyone but her baba. It was strange. The lessons she had been giving him about letting go seemed difficult to comprehend now. She let him go but couldn’t let go. There was either this memory of him that she was to live with now or the school. Fathers and daughters have this about them. The said is very little and the unsaid is eternal.
Of all the legacy bequeathed upon her, there was also a bunch of keys that led to the secret chest. As Sabeena finally made her way to the hard-bound book that lay in there, she discovered several hand-written notes, diary entries, letters with carefully placed words to churn out all that her baba ever was.
Even as he had filled himself with irrevocable anguish at the supposed thought of separation from his daughter, he chose to leave for her his complete self, embalmed in words forever, to give company on lonesome days. Somehow baba had always known that letting go wasn’t meant for either of them!