I wipe a layer of dust off a large wooden box in the attic. It creaks as I open it. A dim light bulb hanging from the roof illuminates its contents.
My old school uniform peeks out from under a few dry sprigs of neem and some other clothes. Brown pants, now faded and a white sweater with ‘Mussoorie Public School’ embroidered on it in blue thread. I’m going to keep these. The rest, I will donate. Ma held on all my things for as long as she was alive.
“It feels like you’re still here, Samir. Let me keep them, please,” she used to say, running her hand over these clothes and occasionally picking up one of my shirts to hold it close to her face, taking in the musty smell.
I miss Ma. But her loss doesn’t punch me in the gut anymore. The two years since her passing and my life in Delhi have tamped down my grief. But there are times when her favorite song just randomly plays on the radio. I see her or hear her sometimes while walking down the road. I sing the same lullabies to my kids that she used to sing to me.
“Ma, what’s Baba like?” I ask Ma every night. She never seems to tire of it.
“Baba is a prince, a kind one. He travels to countries far far away, but he misses us a lot.” My four year-old self laps this story up.
I am seven when Prakash, my classmate riles me up. “Samir’s dad is dead!” He shouts out loud in the school quadrangle. I punch his nose. He boxes my ears in return. Our teachers rush down to separate us before we kill each other.
“Is Baba really dead?” I demand. She continues dabbing my bruises with a cotton ball soaked in antiseptic.
“Ma, is Baba dead?”
“No.” Her eyes blaze. “Baba is not dead.”
A few days later, a postcard arrives. It is addressed to me. My chest puffs up. It has a picture of the Pyramids of Giza. On the other side, a bold cursive handwriting says –
Hello from Egypt. I hope you’re being good and studying well. I miss you both very much.
I hug the postcard with all my might as if I can squeeze Baba out of it. I run up and down Mall Road waving the postcard. Dressed in my uniform, I run bare feet, cutting through the Mussoorie fog, through throngs of tourists. People huddled around coal braziers stare, stray dogs bark, but I don’t stop until I reach the top of the hill. “Baba is alive!” I shout out. The Himalayas echo my elation.
I read all about Egypt in school the next day. I draw the pyramids, talk constantly about them and dream about them.
The next one arrives a few weeks later. This time it’s a picture of a lion in the Serengeti. I make up tall stories to tell my friends. The postcard shrine on my table grows taller.
Ma hums while cooking these days. She dresses in brighter colors.
We never know when those postcards from my father will arrive, but it is like Diwali morning whenever they do.
The trill of my ringtone brings me back to the attic. It’s my wife checking in on me. I only have a few days to sort through Ma’s stuff before selling the house. My feet are numb from kneeling. I heave myself up and hold onto a wooden crate for balance. I recognize the cardboard box inside. I stored Baba’s postcards in it.
They’re all in there, with a few new ones that I haven’t seen before. They’re all blank except the one with the Brooklyn bridge on it. There are only two words on the other side. “Dear Samir,” It’s the same cursive handwriting. I bury my face in the card.
There’s a yellowing paper sitting under all those cards.
“Dear Shanti…“ This handwriting is different, masculine and slightly messy. It’s a letter addressed to my mother.
My eyes skim over the next sentence. “You and Samir mean everything to me, but I cannot stay...”
My eyes smart. I crumple the letter, throw it back in the box and bang it shut.
My father was a Prince, a busy one who traveled the world. He will remain that forever.