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Stories. 
Shadows in the Snow - Chapter 10
by Swapna Dutta

Continued from Chapter – 9

I don’t remember how I got back to the Villa Alpina. I had cried out that I was indeed there when I heard Joseph calling me. But I seem to have fainted soon after they reached me. And I held Nibbler so tightly that they had a tough job releasing him from my arms. How did they find us? Joseph said it was not difficult to guess that I had taken the railway track when he didn’t catch up with us on the road. The tracks went quite close to the road most of the way, dipping down at some places and going over the bridge at others. He had been following it along with Mr. Lama’s gardener and calling out my name all the way. At times he had been afraid I had turned dizzy and slipped down or broken my leg. But he was confident that Nibbler would not desert me and would certainly bark if he heard Joseph calling me. It had taken him a long time because I had a good start and he had been cycling on the road trying to find me before he realized that I had taken the rail track. But he had found us at last despite the fog and the darkness. And that’s what really mattered!

When I opened my eyes the sunlight was streaming in through the window. I was stiff and sore all over. But except for that, there was nothing else wrong with me. I was surprised to see that I was lying on the divan in our parlour and not in my own box room. Two faces bent over me. Madam’s and that of Uncle Aneesh.

“Uncle Aneesh!” I cried sitting up, “oh Uncle Aneesh, how did you get here?”

“How do you feel, Vandana?” asked Madam. There was a note of anxiety in her voice that I had never heard before. Did she really care about me then, apart from duty?

“Madam, I am so sorry I ran away and caused you so much trouble,” I said looking at her, “I thought you would be able to go abroad without having to arrange my future if I wasn’t there. I didn’t realize that my running away would make things even more difficult, both for me and you.”

“We’ll say no more about it, considering the very good news in store for you,” said Madam smiling.

“Good news? For me? What is it?” I cried, “please tell me.”

“Vandana, do you remember your mother’s name?” asked Uncle Aneesh.

“Mama’s name? No, I don’t think so. Why?” I asked, surprised.

“Think hard. It could be important” said Uncle Aneesh.

“I think some of the children who came to our house with books called her “Mita didi,” I said, “but I can’t be sure. I don’t know if it was her real name.”

“It could be a whole name but it could very well be the abbreviation of a host of names, such as Amita, Sumita, Namita and so on” said Uncle Aneesh looking disappointed. “Do you remember anything else about her? What she looked like? Her eyes?”

I tried hard to recall what mama had looked liked but could only remember the softness of her cheeks against mine, the utter security I felt in her arms, her love and her tenderness. I could not recall her features, height or complexion.

Uncle Aneesh handed me a photograph. I looked at it eagerly and saw the pretty face of a smiling girl in Rajasthani clothes – ghagra and choli. She looked familiar, as though I had seen her somewhere before. I felt I knew that smile. But again, I could not be sure.

“That’s the problem for me too,” said Madam, “she looks familiar but I cannot remember where I have seen here or if I really have. I come across so many people and I have a bad memory for faces.”

“Who is she?” I asked Uncle Aneesh.

“My sister. She is probably dead. We lost her years ago.”

“Lost? How could you lose a grown up person?” I asked bewildered, “surely no one could kidnap her?”

“There are other ways of losing a person” said Uncle Aneesh with a sad smile, “it’s a long story.”

“Vandana, Mr. Bose thinks that you could be her daughter,” said Madam, “it would be wonderful for you both if you were. Are you sure you can’t remember what your mother looked like?”

For a moment everything seemed to be in a whirl. I could imagine how wonderful it would be to be actually related to Uncle Aneesh. It would solve all my problems. I’d have someone of my own and a place that could be my home. And Madam could happily go abroad without having to worry about me. Should I tell him that I did remember the person in the photo? I think it was the biggest temptation I’d ever come across! The person in the photo did look familiar. Would it be so very wrong to tell them that I thought it was my mother? I am sure both would have believed me if I did. Then I knew that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell a lie about mama. The fact was that I was not really sure.

“I am sorry I don’t remember what mama looked like, although I remember her and love her as much as ever,” I said at last. Only I knew what a huge sacrifice it was for me to tell them the truth.

“Do tell me about your sister, though, and what made you think that I could be her daughter.”

“Yes, I think you should hear it in any case,” said Uncle Aneesh.

“Sumita or Mita as I called her, was my only sister. She was much younger than I was. Our mother died soon after she was born and my father was especially attached to her. She was in college when I went abroad for higher studies. That was when she met a young artist – Pradip Ray – and fell in love with him. But my father was dead against her marrying him.”

“Why?” I asked. I was really keen to know it all, whether or not the lady was my mama.

“For one thing, he called Pradip a ‘poor nobody’ and felt he was not good enough for her in any way. His parents were dead, he was not well-off and he was not established as an artist although many felt him to be really talented.”

“Did that matter so much if they loved one another? If she didn’t mind being poor?” I asked in surprise.

“Not to her but it mattered to him,” said Uncle Aneesh, “you see, he had already decided that she should marry a splendid and rich man and had already selected someone for her. He forbade her to see Pradip and asked her to forget him.”

“How did you feel about it? Did you also agree with your father?” I enquired.

“I had never met Pradip but when Mita wrote to me about him and told me about father’s wishes I wrote back asking her to wait and told her that I would see to things. I had just submitted my thesis and was waiting for my viva.”

“Viva?” I asked puzzled, not understanding what exactly it meant.

“The second part of my exam,” explained Uncle Aneesh, “it was important that I shouldn’t miss it.”

“And then?”

“Father didn’t want to wait and made arrangements for Mita’s engagement with the man of his choice immediately. So Mita ran away and married Pradip and both of them left Calcutta immediately.”

There was a knock on the door. Saila came to tell Madam that breakfast had been served long ago and the porridge was getting cold.

“Come, Mr. Bose,” said Madam at once. “Vandana, go to your room and get ready and then take Nibbler for his run. You can hear the rest of the story later. Nibbler had been sleeping too after his unexpected adventure last evening.

I got up and went to my room. I was in a sort of daze. Uncle Aneesh’s story sounded like one of the soap-opera tales Itsy and Bitsy had told me! Or a story from films which again they had told me on rainy afternoons. I hadn’t realized that such things happened in real life too! I completed my morning chores as fast as I could so that I might hear the rest of the story from Uncle Aneesh. I was keen to know what had made Uncle Aneesh think that I might be the daughter of his sister. What link did he find between us? I did not have to wait long because Madam sent for me soon after I returned after taking Nibbler for his run. Uncle Aneesh was in the parlour with him.

“I expect you are keen to know the rest of the story?” asked Uncle Aneesh.

“Yes, I am,” I said, “whether or not I belong to it. Did you find your sister and her husband soon?”

“No,” said Uncle Aneesh shaking his head, “as I told you before, I was abroad when it happened. By the time I returned there was no trace of them.”

“Didn’t your father try to find them?” I asked in surprise.

“He was so angry with her for having run away that he said that she was dead so far as he was concerned and refused to forgive her. I tried to find them after my return but with no success. I had never met Pradip and just knew his name, nothing more. None of Mita’s friends could tell me anything. She had kept everything a close secret. All my attempts at finding them failed. So I merely lived in the hope that she herself would get in touch with me sooner or later. I did not think of the possibility of her being dead.”

“I expect it is difficult to find a person if she does not wish to be found,” I said, “But Uncle Aneesh, what made you think that I might be her daughter? Do I look like your sister?”

“No, you don’t, or I’d have thought of it sooner. But some things about you do remind me of her – your ways, the way you speak. What made me think was the fact that my sister loved the hills. When I heard your story and the fact that your mother had signed her name as “Mrs. S. Ray” when she came to the Villa Alpina years ago, it made me think. Not right then, but after I returned home and spoke about it to my wife and daughter. I wrote to Mrs. Barnet asking for the address she had put down in the register. She could not find it at first because all the old registers were sold to the junkman years ago. It seemed a dead end. But I kept on writing and asking her if she remembered anything else about your mother. Finally, when she was sorting her papers before preparing to go abroad finally, she found an old diary where she had noted the address for putting in an advertisement in the papers. It was an old address but the lady remembered your mother who had been a teacher in a local primary school. She told me your mother was a widow with just a little girl. But she was able to describe her to me – and it seemed to fit. That’s all.”

“But it is not real proof,” I said in a disappointed voice. “Could she tell you how or when her husband died?”

“I did ask her and she said Mrs. Ray had told her that he had died in a bus accident when he was coming from Siliguri.”

“I don’t know if that makes things any clearer. This story could fit a lot of people,” I said feeling acutely disappointed.

“But you haven’t heard the best part yet, Vandana. That is what makes all the difference,” said Madam smiling.

“What is it?” I asked although I did not believe it could be anything that would change my situation.

“Vandana, my wife and I had already decided to adopt you after I returned home and told her your story, whether or not you are my niece. We want you for your sake and not because of who you may be. That is not important. I meant to come and ask Madam and try my best to get her to agree. You see, the ‘S. Ray’ and ‘Mita didi’ could be my sister Sumita. But it could well be just a coincidence and the person might be some one else. But as I said before, it is not important because it is you we want.

“But why should you or anyone want to bother about an orphan?” I asked, “Madam could not help it because I was dumped on her and she had no choice. But you already have a daughter.”

“Namita, my daughter, has always wanted a younger sister, silly girl,” said Uncle Aneesh, “she has already made so many plans for you. I know you’ll love most of them.”

“And Nibbler?” I asked anxiously for I couldn’t possibly live without him.

“Nibbler too, of course,” said Uncle Aneesh, “he’s a clever chap and I couldn’t desert him!”

I felt giddy with happiness. I never knew it could feel like this! To have a home at long last, a family and somewhere I’d truly belong!

“I can’t believe you mean it!” I whispered trying not to cry, “it’s too good to be true! I’ll wake up and find I’ve been dreaming and that I’m as lonely as ever.”

“Dear child, you’ll never be lonely again,” said Uncle Aneesh, “I’ve come to take you home.”

“Mr. Bose will be with us for a few days,” said Madam, “Vandana, you’d better get your things together and say goodbye to your friends.

“Which friends, Madam?” I asked in surprise.

“Kancha, for one, and Joseph too, I expect.”

“Oh, of course. Both have been so good to me,” I said, “I’ll miss them and you and Villa Alpina and this whole place.”

“Of course you will or I’d think you most ungrateful,” said Uncle Aneesh, “but that’s life. One just has to move on.”

That same afternoon as we walked by the waterfall I asked,

“Uncle Aneesh, do you know what brought me such wonderful luck?”

“What?” he asked me curiously.

“The prayer wheel in our river which I turned with my hands last evening when I had run away,” I said, “my prayers must have reached their destination!”

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised” said Uncle Aneesh with feeling, “look, Vandana, the shadows seem to have lifted from the clouds. Look at the gleaming snow range in all its glory! I’ve never seen such bright sunshine this time of the year.”

“Perhaps they too want too share my happiness,” I whispered.

(Concluded)

02-Apr-2017
 
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