It was past eight in the evening. Sylvia was waiting for her husband Hemant who had promised his family to take them out for a dinner. It was nothing new for Hemant to promise and then forget and Sylvia knew it. This was but a different occasion; it was their daughter Jayanti’s twenty-first birthday. Jayanti had gone out with her fiancé in the afternoon and returned early to prepare for the evening.
“Join us at Taj, Papa is taking us there for a dinner.”
“That is you and your family, how do I come in?” Patrick teased her.
“Shut up and be there at eight, OK?”
“Do I have a choice,” Patrick said and winked.
“Of course not,” she had said.
Jayanti and her mother were waiting impatiently for Hemant. She was feeling uneasy for she knew Patrick would be there at Taj sharp at eight.
Patrick was a major in the Indian army. He knew Jayanti and her family for many years, in fact since his childhood. Jayanti’s father and his father were colleagues. After Patrick’s father died in a road accident, they had moved to Mysore and settled there.
Jayanti and Patrick were in love and Jayanti had given him an indication that perhaps her father may announce his consent formally over the dinner. In fact that was the plan and therefore it was a special day for the family. Sylvia had discussed the matter with Hemant and hoped that keeping the importance and solemnity of the occasion in mind, he would remember and be at home in time.
“Ma, please ring him again, it is half past eight now.”
“You should have known your father by now. Why don’t you ring him this time?”
Jayanti knew it was of no use for her father had said a couple of minutes back that he was going to minister’s chamber. “I will ring you as soon as I come out,” he had told Sylvia.
“Jayanti, take the car and go to Taj and take Pat to dinner. You have to handle the situation tactfully. I know it is quite embarrassing but you can’t sit here indefinitely waiting for your father,” Sylvia suggested.
“If he comes in good time, I will ring you,” she added.
Jayanti was upset. It was nine and Taj was at least thirty minutes drive from her place. Patrick, she knew was quite punctual and she was debating within her self whether he was still there or not.
“Pat, I am awfully sorry,” she said as she saw him walking towards her.
“What happened?” Patrick asked noticing the anxiety on her face. “Where are your folks?”
“Papa could not come out of his office, busy always- you know how serious he is about his work.”
“Oh! I see…… if that was the case, you should have brought your mother…… not left her alone.”
“Pat, Ma has to wait until father returns home. She is very sorry and she has sent her apologies.”
“Will you shut up? What apology? It’s not her fault.”
Jayanti didn’t know how to continue. Then she saw Patrick looking at her and smiling.
“I say, I am damn hungry, it is nearly ten now,” Patrick said pulling her towards him.
Jayanti felt relieved.
“OK, let’s go to Bukhara,” she suggested for she knew it was Pat’s favourite restaurant.
“Great,” Patrick said and led her to the restaurant.
“You still seem to be up set,” Patrick said, holding her hand.
“Pat, I am in a dilemma. You took me out in the afternoon and now again……. will it be OK if I stand the dinner on behalf of my parents; I mean the invitation was from them.”
“Come on honey, I wouldn’t like to upset you any more. It is fine with me. Let’s enjoy.”
Jayanti looked at him; not trusting his words for she knew Patrick had never allowed her to pay.
“It is the privilege of the officer escorting a lady, if he is one,” he had told her every time she wanted to pay.
“I say Jayanti, is whiskey in the offer-list?”
“Anything,” Jayanti said smiling back.
“You, sure?” Patrick asked with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.
“Shut up, you are supposed to be a gentleman dating a lady.”
Sylvia was waiting. It was past twelve. In fact, she now waited for Jayanti and Patrick more than her husband. Hemant had rung her up and told that he had to work late night for the minister was keen to finalize the policy document and make an announcement next morning in the parliament.”
“Damn you and your bloody minister.”
“Sylvia darling, please try to understand, it is a very important document…… the government wants to get political mileage in the coming elections.”
“Let the ruling party rot in hell with you in attendance,” she said and put the phone down.
Sylvia had decided to arrange Jayanti's engagement a week later on Wednesday since Patrick was returning to his unit on following Friday.
“Can’t rely on this man….… I better things myself,” she mumbled within.
She saw Jayanti driving in with Patrick. From behind the curtains, she saw them running in to each other’s arms, hugging and kissing passionately. She was relieved, made a cross and whispered, “God, be kind to these children.”
“Pat, I am sorry I couldn't join you…… Jayanti must have explained.”
“No problem dear aunt. There must be some serious and urgent matter holding back the old man, I can understand.”
“Thank you son. Please sit down, I will get you some coffee,” Sylvia said feeling a little comforted.
Jayanti had in the mean time changed. She looked pretty in the blue silken gown, which Patrick had gifted her earlier in the day.
“Excellent, I say, superb” Patrick said sipping the coffee.
“Gown or I?” It was Jayanti, her face beaming.
“Coffee, I say, it is real cool coffee.”
“Being discourteous towards a pretty young lady; that is unbecoming of an officer.” Jayanti hit back.
Sylvia looked at them and smiled briefly and then told Patrick, “We are arranging a small party on Wednesday. Please ring your mother. I want a brief engagement ceremony, only family friends.”
“You mean our engagement! That is great, thanks a lot, a million thanks dear aunt…….. I have been waiting for it for so long. Didn't this dumb head tell you ever?”
“She did,” Sylvia smiled as she saw Jayanti punching Patrick in the stomach.
Hemant was tired. It was one in the morning. He had to rewrite most of the document as desired by the minister who before leaving had asked him to keep the final print ready.
“I want it to be placed before the next cabinet committee meeting.”
Hemant De Costa had put in thirty-two years of service in the government. He was known as an honest and capable officer; had worked conscientiously all through his career.
“Why do you slog so much? Isn’t there an equitable distribution of work in your system?”
“Sylvia, there is everything but you know how some people work in the government.”
“Yes, I had known it and now seen it for myself. There are unbridled horses and there are mules, all lumped together. Ironically, even the mules innovate reasons to appear satisfied with their lot.
“You are making an overstatement. If everyone had the same outlook, tell me then who will work?”
“That is exactly my point. Why should everyone not do his work? I never see any of your friends staying back late and not getting promoted along with others.”
“There is some thing called conscience? If I accept a work, I want to do it diligently. It is my commitment to my profession, my humble contribution and notwithstanding your perennial chiding, I am proud of it.”
They often had those arguments but Sylvia was always careful not to reach the flash point for she knew Hemant was hypersensitive and vulnerable to high blood pressure. She would divert her attention to house hold chores and towards young Jayanti besides her job. That saved the situation and kept her busy.
Over the years, Hemant was engrossed in his office work more than ever leaving hardly any time for his daughter and wife. Often he would be in his office on Saturdays and Sundays or be on tours. Nothing allured or tempted him and people around him knew that. Hemant was aware that many of his colleagues were dishonest, their ostentatious life style showed it but he never deviated him from his chosen path.
“Sylvia, I am answerable to my self and to God thereafter. I am not doing anything that would make me feel ashamed of myself nor am I tempted to follow others. And I know, I can not stop others, it is each to him self.”
Years passed by. Sylvia had learnt not to argue with him now that he had diabetes and high blood pressure. She sometimes noticed that he looked very tired and exhausted and yet after dinner he would go to his study and start working on the files he brought from office.
“Hemant, if you leave these files in the office, heaven is not going to fall. On the contrary if you keep on working like this, something untoward is bound to happen.”
“Sylvia, give me my medicine and let me work peacefully,” he would tell her and she had to resign.
On the all important Wednesday Jayanti was to be affianced, Hemant managed to reach home on time. Till that day, he had never realized that his little daughter had grown up and that she was ready for marriage. Tears welled up in his eyes as he saw Patrick and Jayanti exchanging rings.
“Where has that little Jayanti gone?” Suddenly he asked himself. He was looking for his little mischievous Janie, as he used to call her.
“My God, I have been having a fixation for my office, never had time to be with my daughter. I never noticed her growing until this day,” he whispered to Sylvia.
Jayanti and Patrick were to be married three months later on the 24th of October. Patrick had been selected for the prestigious Command Course in the Staff College at Wellington, which was to commence from the first week of November. Patrick was keen that Jayanti accompanied him to Wellington.
As expected, Sylvia was running around, Jayanti helping her to the extent she could.
“I know you don’t trust me but you can ask my secretary for arranging matters, he is very efficient,” Hemant told Sylvia sheepishly.
“It is Ok, I can manage things my self. Only one request - please make sure you are present on the wedding day.”
“Have a heart Syl, am I so bad a father? She is our only child,” Hemant said and added with a wide grin, “I will take a week’s leave before the marriage.”
“I wish you did that,” Sylvia said going away to attend to some other chores.
It was second half of September. The minister was keen to finalize a tender before the impending elections. He was putting great deal of pressure on Hemant to lead the delegation to evaluate the offers of the short listed bidders at London, scheduled in the second week of October. Hemant wanted to avoid it and told the minister of his predicament.
“Sir, my daughter is getting married on 24th October. You would appreciate, my presence at home during this period is quite necessary. Perhaps Mr. Manoharan can lead the team.”
The minister knew Manoharan too well to allow that. He knew Manoharan would not only extract a pound of flesh from the supplier but also seek reward from him as well.
“Look, the delegation would be back by the morning of 23rd October. You will be back before the day of marriage. The routine works can be taken care of by your people and your personal staff.”
Hemant was visibly annoyed. The scoundrel thinks my daughter’s marriage is a routine job. The minister sensed it.
“Mr. De Costa, these are important matters of the state. You have to rise to the occasion. You know government’s stake in this project. It is going to revolutionize the whole telecom sector in the country. Even the prime minister is personally monitoring this project.”
The minister waited to see the impact of his words. The reference of prime minister had suitable effect. Before Hemant could say anything the minister interjected, “Look, I want this deal to come through and you alone can do that. I will be too embarrassed if you back out at this stage.”
Hemant knew what “minister is embarrassed” meant in bureaucratic parlance. He felt there was no choice left. He agreed reluctantly and left the minister abruptly.
Hemant could hardly reach his room. His head reeled and vision blurred. He slumped in to his chair and told his secretary to put the red light on. “No phones, no visitors.”
Hemant was restless. He took a BP tablet and stretched over a sofa.
“How can I explain it to Jayanti and to Sylvia of all the persons? How do I convince them that the minister says it is national interest and I can not avoid it?” He knew it would sound phony.
What then? Was it lack of courage, cowardice, the corrupt minister or was it his ambition? He couldn’t decide.
Hemant was deeply dejected and depressed. His heart went out to his daughter and his wife. He pitied his wife and cursed himself and he didn't know how to break the news to them.
That evening when he did spill the words, Jayanti was in tears, Sylvia was dumbfounded and both of them left him quietly. Hemant finished the whiskey with a long gulp and went to the study. “What a cursed life is this?” He whispered before digging in to the files.
It was the evening of 19thth October. Hemant was leaving for London on an important mission.
“Sylvia, I know my words have lost meaning if ever they had any. But please believe me, my heart cries in leaving you and Jayanti …… even though I was hardly of any use, I know it is an awful and unforgivable act on my part to be away at this juncture,” Hemant said holding her hands.
“Take your medicine in time,” Sylvia said and withdrew her hands.
Hemant rang Sylvia and Jayanti on reaching London.
“Yes it is cold but nothing to worry. Things are fine over here” and then like a child seeking approbation, he added, “I have taken the medicines.”
“Take care and don’t worry. Here, all arrangements are going on well.”
“Thank you Syl, thanks a lot. I am sorry,” he whispered, his heart crying.
Hemant was busy next two days visiting sites, attending presentations, discussing technical details with his team in the hotel. It was always midnight before he could call it a day. He often remembered his wife and daughter but never had time to
ring them and he forgot to take his medicines in time. There was only one thing in his mind and that was to complete the negotiations by 22nd evening and take the night flight to reach Delhi by 23rd morning. He had therefore kept the final discussions with the bidders on 22nd morning.
The minister had rung him during these days couple of times, giving him sufficient hints of his interest, which was perturbing him in a big way. He was aware that the firm, the minister was interested was not the best in terms of technical suitability in Indian conditions and that its offer was the costliest.
After the final discussions with all the three bidders he held an internal meeting with his team to ascertain their views. They all had an unanimous view.
“Thank you gentlemen. Please send me your comments in writing in an hour’s time,” he told them and then rang up Sylvia to tell her that he was leaving that night and will be with them next morning as per schedule.
Late in the afternoon of 22nd October when Hemant was summing up his report, there was a call from the minister. Hemant could make out that the minister was annoyed and it didn’t surprise him that the minister had detailed knowledge of the deliberations with the bidders and the recommendations of the team members.
“You have not looked in to environmental hazards and corresponding costs to remedy them in the case of the lowest bidder and please have a look at the special package that one of the firms is offering. Adequate weightage should be given to that,” the minister told him. Hemant knew that it was also the key argument of the firm, which the minister wanted to help.
“Sir, we have taken every factor in to account. The member finance has worked out detailed cost analysis.”
The minister was apparently irritated.
“Mr. De Costa, I suggest you meet all the three firms again tomorrow. Perhaps a fresh look is required keeping these aspects in mind.”
That was the fear deep inside Hemant.
“Sir, you know my daughter is getting married on day after tomorrow. In fact, I came here since you insisted. I have already booked my passage for tonight.”
“I am sorry; you can not leave half-way. The job has to be completed,” the minister was brusque.
Hemant was dumbstruck. The minister knew that he had made the kill. “Mr. De Costa, the opposition and the press are waiting to pounce on us. Let’s do a foolproof and complete job.”
Hemant listened. The minister changed the stance. “I know it is rather unfair to hold you back but the implications of leaving the negotiations mid-way will be very serious.”
Hemant was still quiet. The minister shot the last arrow, “How can I justify before the parliament that the team has returned leaving the job incomplete because its leader has a private engagement back home. Aren’t we accountable to the people? The press, you know will lap it.”
“The son of a bitch, talking of parliament, people and accountability,” Hemant lost his cool for the first time.
“I will stay back but I am damned if I let the rascal have his way. I will make sure that the firm which serves the country’s interest best gets the contract; come what may,” he told to himself.
Hemant then wished he could talk to his wife, not on the mess he was deeply in but simply about Jayanti, of his years with her, of the preparations going on at his place or about anything else in the world, just simple idle talk to sooth his agitated nerves.
But he didn’t have the courage to ring Sylvia. He took two sleeping pills and slid in to his bed.
Next morning there was a call from Sylvia. She sounded very worried. “Where are you? Are you all right? Why didn’t you ring yesterday evening?”
“I am sorry Syl. Things here are in a mess. I can not explain it over phone. I will ring you as soon as the matter is sorted out.”
“What do you mean? Aren’t you reaching today?”
“No, no. It is not like that… but I am not sure as yet. I will ring you. Please bear with me… please Syl… please.”
“Hemant, I know what it means,” she said and snapped the line.
Next day Hemant met the bidders once again and asked his colleagues to give him their opinion. He was happy that all of them were of unanimous opinion that no new point was made by any of the bidders. He summed up the report recorded the verdict in favour of the best offer and took the night flight to India.
He couldn’t sleep in the flight. He changed the time in his watch, bringing it back to Indian time. All spent the whole night watching its hands moving and thinking of the events going on at his place.
It was nine by his watch. That was the time Hemant was supposed to take his daughter to the altar. What a proud moment that would have been? God! What have I done to deserve this punishment? Even if Sylvia and Jayanti forgive me and perhaps out of their love for me, they might but I will never forgive myself. His heart ached and his eyes burned with remorse. It seemed to him that he had betrayed his family, committed an inexcusable sin.
He reached home late in the afternoon. By then, Jayanti and Patrick had been pronounced as husband and wife. There was a reception party in the evening. Patrick had taken Jayanti to the beauty parlour. Sylvia just said hello to him and left him alone.
Hemant got ready for the party. Sylvia was waiting for him in the living room. They reached the banquet hall without exchanging a word.
As he received the guests many of them were curious to know why he was not there in the morning for the marriage. He simply smiled for he was too tired to give a plausible explanation.
He saw Jayanti and Patrick enter the hall. They looked charming and happy. Words wouldn't come to Hemant as he looked at them. He was feeling foolish and embarrassed.
Patrick saved the situation for him. He came to him with a bottle of Champaign. “Papa, take it easy. All of us know how much you would have loved to be with us,” He said and then handing him the bottle he added, “You have to open it.”
Hemant’s hands were trembling. He looked over his specs and saw Sylvia standing at the far end of the hall talking to the guests.
Hemant walked up to Sylvia, shook the bottle and let the wire go. There was a bang and the wine swashed out, reaching the ceiling.
Then he poured the Champaign in a glass and offered it to Sylvia.
“Syl, this is for you darling. For all that you have done for me and the family. Please accept it for the sake of our children, Jayanti and Patrick ……for old time sake …and… please …forgive me … if possible,” he could speak no more. Tears rolled down his eyes blurring his sight and choking his voice.
Sylvia looked at her husband, the broken man standing in front of her.
“All his life this man has been sincere to his family and to his profession. He may have been mild but he has been honest altogether,” she told to herself.
She smiled and accepted the wine from Hemant. Taking his hand in hers she said, “Darling for your happiness,” and took a long sip before going in to his waiting arms.