Fiction | ‘The Distant Aunt’ by Anne Mary Naveen

Anne Featured

When you are eight years old, you have lived long enough to believe that your parents’ world revolves around you, an oscillation of attention. And it was so for me, till my younger sister, Neha popped into our family. This age difference, a surprising eight year gap, became a setting for warmth. We never quarreled much, we never argued. I was not much of an elder sister, as I was a second younger mother to her.

We lived in Trichy. Our house was situated at a couple of kilometres from the IIT campus. The school was close by and we would travel to school by cycle mostly, unless it rained and we would take an auto rickshaw.

I had a decent academic record in school and always wanted to be a teacher. My parents had a lot of expectations from me. Neha, on the other hand, was more inclined towards performing arts. She was a trained Bharatanatyam dancer and a talented singer at a young age and would dabble in theatre as well. She was fascinated by the world of cinema and in a country where actors are celebrated, it did not come as a surprise at all.

She had a lot of friends and attracted attention all over with her charm. I kept a good watch on her, protective as I was, and didn’t want her to fall in the wrong company

She respected my concerns, but deep down, she had a different perspective on life, on everything. She had bigger ambitions and dreams than I did. She wanted to be famous. But I felt that she lacked the maturity that I had when I was her age.

When she moved into high school, she started having a lot of male friends. When I questioned her about the messages she received from friends at odd hours of the night, she would laugh. Our parents were not as strict with her because she was their darling, their little baby girl.

I completed my post-graduation masters and received a job offer: guest lecturer at IIT Trichy. I took it and as I settled into the job, that I very soon grew to love, my parents thought it would be a good time to get me married. It happened quickly, I would say. They sent me a couple of proposals and in a few months, I got engaged to Arun. He was an engineer living in the same city. A very quiet person, Arun and I got together well, as if we knew each other all our lives. He enjoyed sports, mostly cricket and football. He was a regular player of the local teams.

We moved into a rented house after marriage, and I started to embrace my marriage with all its responsibilities. Neha had finished her school and was planning to go to Mumbai to study theatre. As was foretold by everyone in our family, her academic prowess was not so great. She was a natural at theatre and we believed, she could really achieve something there. Our only concern was that the field she chose to take, came with its own challenges and she was too young to understand these things. When our parents finally agreed to her Mumbai plans, they asked a relative to be her local guardian in the city while she completed her course. I visited her every month. Like most newbies in a big city, she was lonely and terrified during the first few months. And like most new people adjusting to a new city, she started getting used to the fast life and was visibly happier in the subsequent visits.

As I got busy with work and duties at home, my visits reduced. Neha tried her hand in modelling for some retail brands, as she said it was a step towards acting. Being tall and reasonably fair, she managed to get a couple of projects. In a few months, she got a small role in a movie and started getting noticed. But she wanted more, always, and was extremely hard working. She tried to connect with other artists. In a year, she managed to get a lead role beside an upcoming actor. The movie was well received, and she gained some popularity for her pointed role. Before this, she used to visit us in Trichy once every two or three months. But with her new schedule, she could not make the time.

When she turned 20, she got into a relationship with her co-star. She didn’t let me in about it, for a good six months. She was not sure if our parents would approve and was also worried if this new boy in the industry, someone she had only recently met, was ready to marry her. I protested, the affair seemed temporary. But she was always a crazy child. She listened to me and when I left for Trichy, she hugged me and said she will fix it. She never did.

A few months later, while I was cleaning the house for Diwali, I received a call from her. She was crying and had probably not slept for days. She was pregnant and terrified. Her star boyfriend was not ready to marry her, and they had broken up a few weeks ago. She was not sure how our parents would take this. At that point she was not the carefree child I remembered. She sounded lost and I was worried about her. I immediately left for Mumbai and brought her home. Our parents were devastated and in trauma. We didn’t disclose this to anyone as we knew it would bring shame to the family. Our parents decided that it would be best to terminate the pregnancy as soon as possible. Neha was too traumatised to have an opinion, but eventually agreed to go through the procedure. However, I was against it as I knew deep-inside, Neha didn’t want it either.

I spoke to Arun and came up with a solution to the problem. We decided that we would take Neha to a remote care centre in Kerala until her delivery with a cover up story: I was the one who was pregnant and that the doctor had advised to undergo treatment there to avoid complications. Once she gives birth, we would then take the child with us as our own. Meanwhile Neha could start her life afresh and continue to do what she wanted. I knew how much she loved acting and I could not imagine having her leave it all behind. It would have surely ended in depression.

Our parents took a lot of convincing and a lot of time adjusting to the dramatic turn of events. Neha had to come up with an excuse that she was going for an ayurvedic treatment for a leg fracture in the same centre to justify her absence in the industry and avoid any unwanted media attention.

Arun was very understanding. He knew that I wanted my sister to be happy and he was ready to accept any change to sort it out. I requested for a long leave from the university and we both travelled to Kerala for the “treatment”. Since Neha was an upcoming artist, one whose career could be majorly impacted by news of pregnancy, especially with a co-actor, we ensured that our visit was confidential and no news came out. Time passes, like it always does, and Neha started getting back on track, she would share stories of her days in Mumbai and how she missed the life there. She didn’t want her child to know that she was the mother. She was not ready to take any responsibility and felt the baby could end her career. My sister was not selfish, she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. She had dreams to fulfil and was still too young to take care of another person.

As a sister, I listened to her, catching hints of her desire to get back to acting, but I was concerned for her mental health.

Neha gave birth to a baby boy in the second week of August. He looked like an angel. I left for Trichy with the child after a few weeks. It wasn’t easy for either of us, as Neha pulled herself up and moved back to Mumbai. Our parents were supportive during her pregnancy but the moment she decided to leave for Mumbai they broke ties with her.

Neha was hurt, a baby handed over, and parents who cut off, but the experience made her a tougher person and she knew that she probably would not meet or see them again and that it was best for both her and her son that they do not keep contact. Aarav, as he was fondly called by Arun, became a part of our lives. I was his mother and we loved him as our own. He was our own. My parents did not want to meet him but let their anger aside in a couple of months and started visiting him regularly. Had it not been for Arun, I would not have been able to do this. We started saving our money for his future.. However, things got worse. In about a year, my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She was bedridden after the surgery. I shuttled between taking care of her and Aarav. Those were the hardest months for me and I could see that my father was not taking it well either. As strong as he tried to be, I would often see him sitting near the veranda alone, crying.

My mother died in her sleep, a few weeks later. She had been through a lot of pain and had mentally lost all hope to live. My father started staying with us. He found a new-found joy in being with Aarav but he could never come back to his original life. A year later, he died from a heart attack. For the last rites of both of them, Neha did not visit.

She told me that she was mentally unattached to everyone from her experience and also from the fact that our parents detached from her when she decided to go back to Mumbai after the delivery. She had bought an apartment for herself in Mumbai and lived with a pet dog, Pluto.

Years passed and Aarav started school. He was aware of a distant aunt who stayed in Mumbai but that was all. I became pregnant a year later and gave birth to our daughter, Vaidehi. Aarav doted on her and the four of us completed the family.

Everything was perfect. Aarav was closer to me. At school, he was the naughty one, while Vaidehi was the shy one. I could see Neha and myself in them. Aarav was a natural talent like his mother. He was involved in every school play, dance and music competition. In our quiet home, he became the energy and light.

I moved into a senior role in the university and Arun got a promotion at work.

No one ever guessed that Aarav wasn’t our child. He looked a lot like our grandfather in his younger days and had Neha’s eyes. Vaidehi looked like his younger version. They played together and with his encouragement, she started participating in school plays as well.

And then one day, I received a call from Neha, on a cold winter afternoon. She had decided to leave everything and settle down in Trichy.
Her career graph had started to decline. With time, a lot of newcomers started getting the roles she had hopes for and her popularity started dwindling. She started getting non meaty roles, of an elder sister or an aunt. She knew that there was no moving back after that. She had started a restaurant business with a couple of her colleagues from the industry and was able to get a decent return from it. She had realized that she was getting lonelier and with lesser projects, a lot more than usual. And now she wanted to see Aarav and spend time with him.

I was mildly annoyed, also surprised, but happy with the news. Happy because I missed her and wanted her back in our lives. Annoyed, because I was not sure how Aarav would take this.

She visited us a week later. Aarav knew that she was a movie star as he had seen her on screen. Neha hugged both him and Vaidehi, as soon as she arrived. We had dinner together, and she talked about her life in Mumbai. When we were washing the plates and had put the kids to bed, she quietly brought up the conversation she actually wanted to have, “I know this is going to come as a surprise to you, but I have to do this for myself. I lied to you about settling back in Trichy. I wanted to take Aarav to Mumbai with me.”

I remained speechless for a minute, before saying, “But…but we had agreed that I would be raising Aarav. You can’t do this to us. I don’t think he will be ready to find family in someone who is a stranger to him, who never spent more than a night with him.”

She cut me short, “And that is why I need your help; I need you to convince him to stay with me for a few weeks, give him time to adjust, and then, slowly, very carefully, I will ask him.”

I bit my lip and left the kitchen. I told Arun about Neha. He was visibly upset but tried to reason,“Maybe she is feeling very lonely, in Mumbai and needs company. Why don’t we convince her to stay with us, here?”

I listened to him quietly, but I knew I would never be able to convince Neha. I didn’t sleep that night. By the time it was dawn, my feelings slowly moved from anger to sadness. I realized that even though my love for Aarav outweighed any possible reason to understand Neha’s feelings, I felt that maybe I should understand what she had been through. She had a broken relationship, a child out of wedlock who she could not live with, parents who broke all relations with her. She was rightfully asking for her son back into her life and a chance to start over again.

It took me a couple of days to agree to Neha’s request, but I prayed from the bottom of my heart that Aarav would resist and come back to me.

Vaidehi was upset while Aarav was excited to go out with his aunt. He was beginning to like her, and this vacation seemed to seal his new friendship. Vaidehi quietly came to me, and said, “why doesn’t aunty want me to come along with her?”

Aarav and Neha left a few days later. He seemed to have a conflicted mind about leaving and hugged me tightly before going. Tears poured.

I looked at Neha, she had tears of gratefulness in her eyes that comforted me while I watched the toughest decision of my life play in front of me.

Aarav started enjoying Mumbai, he was excited about the city and was making new friends. He missed his family in Trichy, but he thought that he would join us soon. Neha started pampering him and she was thrilled at the thought of spending some time with him. She had missed the early years of his life and wanted to know everything he liked or disliked. She was trying to find a reason to start a life over again. She casually introduced Aarav to her friends as her son, which he did find odd, but then reasoned that she considered him to be her son.

One evening, when they went out to have dinner at a south Indian restaurant, he said, “I miss Amma’s sambar-rice. She makes the best sambar rice in Trichy. My friends would demand some from my tiffin whenever she had packed it for lunch.” Neha smiled nervously and asked, “Is it? I shall get her to give me her recipe and I will make it for you”. He was clearly missing home and she needed to get him to start accepting his new life. She managed to divert his attention with a new cycle for some time.

Our house was silent after he left. Vaidehi missed playing with him. She used to speak to him occasionally on the phone. He promised that he would be back on her birthday. Neha did not see that coming. She had not broken the news to him yet. She tried to avoid the visit to Trichy but had to give in.

I never expected them to arrive the day before Vaidehi’s birthday. Aarav ran towards Arun and me, hugging us tightly. I felt like a part of my soul had come back to me. Neha looked at him running towards Vaidehi with a content smile. I looked at her and asked, “Did you tell?” And she whispered, “No, not yet… I need your help Akka.”

She never called me “Akka”, unless she wanted something badly or was helpless. I felt goosebumps all over my hands. As selfish as I was, I never wanted to be the person to break the truth to Aarav. Neha convinced me that he would only believe if it came from me. We decided that we would break the news to him after Vaidehi’s birthday.

When I finally told Aarav the truth, he took a lot of time to take it all in. He had questions and we had to explain to him the circumstances at that time. He cried the whole night. Both Neha and I went to comfort him. He was visibly quiet the next day, but we wanted to let him take his time. He started going back to the local school and seemed better than before. Neha stayed with us for a month, but she was getting restless. She wanted to take him back to Mumbai and get him admitted to a reputed Convent school as soon as possible. “I need to take him back. He seems to be fine now. It should be alright to go back. We have been here for some time already.”

I knew that the day would come soon, and it did. Aarav did not take the news well and tried to resist, “I don’t want to go back. I want to stay here.”

Neha tried to reason with him. But he was stubborn. He felt sick and we took him to a clinic. During all this, I forgot to realize that Vaidehi was getting seriously disturbed. I was upset and angry because this drama was tearing our family apart and I could do nothing about it. Aarav recovered after a couple of days and left for school. That day, he did not come back home even after dark. Vaidehi said that he did not join her in the school bus during the return journey. Neha started panicking. “Where did he go?” I was concerned but I thought he might have gone with his friends. Arun called up his friend’s homes, Neha went to school to enquire and I started looking for all possible places that he could’ve gone. The playground next to the temple, our neighbours etc. I started losing all hope and was about to return home when I passed by the river side close to our house. Arun used to take Aarav and Vaidehi every other day to teach them swimming when they were younger. I used to massage their heads with oil next to the steps before they would take the dump. Lately, the water level had started increasing, so we stopped going there. But Aarav and Vaidehi would still visit and make small paper boats and pass them through the stream. How I wished our lives were just like that forever. For a split second, I had a feeling that Aarav could’ve gone there and when I reached the steps, there he was looking at the river and making his paper boats all by himself. I tried to tread slowly so as to not scare him, but he heard me and turned, “I knew you would know where to find me” he smiled and went back gazing at the stream, “It has been a long time since I have come by this side. I feel like I am not going to come back any soon and it hurts me”

I sighed and sat next to him looking into his eyes, “Life gives us a lot of experiences, sometimes they are not the most pleasant ones, but the strength we derive from those experiences make us stronger and worth living for.” I stopped for a moment. I thought I had said something that he would not interpret with the situation. As I started to explain, he spoke “I know that Aunt really loves me and I like her too, but I belong here with all of you. I don’t want to leave.”

For a moment, I wished I could tell him that he should stay but I threw away my selfish thoughts and said,“Let me tell you a story… Once there were two farmers who were also good friends. They both grew coconut trees next to their respective courtyards. One day, one of the farmers had to leave his house because of an urgent family matter. He knew we would not be able to come back soon. He loved his trees dearly.”

I continued, “And so before leaving, he requested his friend to take care of the coconut trees till he was back. The friend agrees to take care of the trees and water them.. Years later, he returned and desired to resume work on his trees. They were his to return to, rightfully.”

Aarav was quiet, but he understood, and said, “I’m ready to go to Mumbai with Neha Aunty. I will give her a chance to know me.”
I hugged him when he said this, knowing that this time the decision was his own and I cannot hope to have him back in our lives again.

Neha was overjoyed to find him and even more thrilled to hear that he had decided to go back with her.
Arun tried to explain the situation to Vaidehi, but she threw a tantrum. Aarav consoled her and promised that he would come to visit her once a while.
Neha booked the return flights immediately for the next day. She was worried if he would change his mind.

Aarav packed his bags and came to see me before the cab arrived.
Before the cab arrived.“I will miss you…” he said and at that moment I lost all my strength and started crying. Arun whispered, “We need to be strong just for today”
As he left in the cab with Neha, I stood there waiting till it turned from the corner of our street, hoping to see if he was back.

Vaidehi pulled my hands and I hugged her as she cried. Days passed by and we started to get our lives back to how it was. I wanted to focus on teaching, but it was hard initially. I tried to get involved in a few commitments at the university to get myself busy with work. Vaidehi also got busy with school and activities.

Neighbours did question why we sent our son to a school in Mumbai with his aunt. We tried to sway them away with some excuses. The truth was that we were still trying to move on and each time Aarav called on our landline, it gave us hope that he may come back. But he never talked about missing us and we started accepting the reality.

A year passed, and it was Vaidehi’s birthday again. I wanted to make it up to her this time. I called her friends, decorated the house and made her favourite dishes. It was a beautiful evening. Vaidehi was so happy and she tucked my saree, “Can we have the coconut burfi now please? We finished our dinner just now.” I nodded and went to place the burfis into the tray.

“Wow…such a long time!” I was startled to find Aarav smiling at me.
He had become taller and leaner in a year.

I ran to him and hugged him tightly. Neha stood behind him smiling. She looked happy.
Vaidehi pulled Aarav’s hand “I knew you would come.”
As they went out to play in our courtyard, Neha came next to me and held my hands.
“When I went back to Mumbai this time, he was such a sweet kid. He was silent, but he did not throw any tantrums. He quietly ate whatever I made him. He went to school and started making friends there.”
I smiled, “I’m glad that he was able to adjust into this new life.”

Neha turned to look away and shook her head as she spoke.
“He was trying to adjust but he still hasn’t. He stopped taking interest in school activities, even in the school play. He was just doing what was necessary, but he was not the Aarav I knew the first time he visited Mumbai.
The first time I saw him here I felt like I saw myself in him, but today when he left the taxi and ran to meet you, it dawned on me that he never belonged to me in the first place. He was always yours, and that is the truth. The friendship we had as an aunt and a nephew was way better than what we have now.
I don’t want to lose that.
And I’m not that selfish. I’ve always been indebted to you my entire life. I leave Aarav with you forever. He knows that and I can see that he has never been happier.”

Neha stayed for the night and left the next day.

We never saw her again.

As much as I was happy to have a beautiful family again, there wasn’t even one night when I felt remorse for her. Seeing my two children happily getting ready for school the next morning makes me think, maybe it was all for the best.

Walls have been repainted at home, some bulbs replaced. I get lost in the humdrum of everyday life, the kids’ school, Arun’s work, my new found interest in gardening. But not a single day goes without me thinking about how life played out with Aarav and us. It has been two years since I saw Neha. Sometimes, like today, when I light the lamp in the veranda, I remember the last time she stood here, watching Aarav run towards me in joy. And then the other memories come pouring in. Neha and I, our early days, our education, the day she decided to go to Mumbai, my marriage with Arun, the clever twist of fate that brought Aarav to my world. He never really mentioned or talked about the time he spent in Mumbai, not even with Vaidehi. It was like he locked it away, a keepsake, to be forgotten and only called out for once in a decade, maybe not even then. He is happy here, I can feel the thud of his heart in mine. Maybe it was all meant to be, this complicated story of Aarav and The Long Distant Aunt.

 

An alumnus of IIM Indore and College of Engineering, Trivandrum, Anne enjoys writing poetry and short stories and currently has her own blog under the name “Annamma’s Pen”. Originally from Kerala, she lives in Dubai with her husband and works as a Business Operations Manager.