People call from around the world. But when talk turns to Belgium, I think of my cousin Kailash. We never spent much time together, but I’ll never in my life forget how the little boy with the cheeky smile clung to me like an octopus, and had to be peeled off, screaming, when we parted seventeen years ago.
On his fifth birthday, I took Rs300 from my savings – it doesn’t sound much but it meant a lot to me then – and paid for a special meal for the children in the orphanage. Since outsiders weren’t allowed in, I don’t know whether they made a hero of Kailash and thanked him, or if he even knew it was his birthday. I’m pretty certain they didn’t have balloons and candles, though. A few weeks later Kailash was adopted and sent off to Belgium.
I was happy that he went to parents who had longed for him, as an adoptive couple surely had. My grandmother was shown photos of a jolly-looking, big-built pair, and deducing that they loved food, she felt comforted. She was also pleased that both were lawyers, since her husband and son had both been in the legal profession.
Kailash’s father was seven years older than my mother, and she had adored him as a child. By the time the family fled their ancestral home soon after Partition, there were three others, and still more on the way.
Perhaps it was the trauma of the move; maybe his education had been interrupted; maybe it was lost love. The handsome, gifted young man, who had embarrassed my mum as a teenager by writing poetry under her name, somehow turned wild, took to drinking and fighting in the streets, and was eventually disowned by his father, by then a magistrate of the Bombay Presidency. He settled in far-away Bikaner, a desert town near the border.
They were five brothers and three sisters – a loving, boisterous clan. My grandmother mourned her firstborn alone, and in silence. Until one day I opened the door, and recognized at once, with a shiver of delicious apprehension, the villain from a photo in the family album! He was fifty now. A minor reconciliation took place. My grandmother’s heart sang; the others remained aloof.
Kailash was born in Bombay. The first time I saw him was after his father died, a few months after Grace, an unknown Grace whose name I read on his birth certificate when I took Kailash up for adoption, had died. I acted with unthinking certainty – entirely uncharacteristic of me then – constrained to the course of action, I believe, by karmic forces. My grandmother, our grandmother, agreed that we had no better option. And surely they were karmic bonds that compelled Kailash – a chirpy, intelligent, laughing-eyed boy – to howl and cling to me, a complete stranger? That caused me to visit him every Sunday before he went away forever? That make me wonder, so often, how life turned out for Kailash?
Maybe one day, he’ll come to Bombay, searching for his roots. Or maybe one day, I’ll visit that Belgian company, and a dark young man, flanked by two hefty lawyers, his loving parents, will walk past.
And maybe I’ll recognize him at once, the way I recognized his dad whom I’d never seen before. And if that happens, my god, what will I ever say?