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A Surreal Gift

by Ritu Gulabani
Hi Friends! I just returned from my holidays in Greece and so have got busy with home and kids. It’s time to wrap up up their holiday homework and push them to start their studies. So for this week I present my first online published story – ‘A Surreal Gift’.  Hope you enjoy reading it! 

Image result for free images of mother and baby

“Look at her tiny hands, tiny feet. She is so soft and supple. Almost like cotton. These European babies are really adorable,” said Neera, while cuddling her friend Marie’s baby on her bed.
“All babies are like that,” said Dilip blankly with his eyes boring into his laptop.
“I know you are upset, especially with the conditions in your office and the city. But we simply can’t throw away an infant.” replied Neera, getting down from the bed.
“She is not our baby. Don’t you see how risky it is? Anyone can lodge a case against us. We are in a foreign and in a troubled country,” said Dilip and followed Neera to the kitchen. “Give her to the police. Someone will definitely come forward to look after her.”
“I can’t! Her mother was my great friend and her father is missing.” she explained while pouring the milk into a baby feeder she had somehow procured from the market. “As far as I know, no one will come. Marie and Aslam had married against the wishes of their parents and relatives. No one ever came to meet them in the past five years.”
“And you wanted a baby desperately,” said Dilip spitefully and went to his media room to play his CD.
Neera could clearly hear the soft music but didn’t care to argue further. She was equally upset, her friend and neighbour, Marie, had been killed in a brutal accident just three days back and her husband Aslam went missing just after the funeral.  Neera was well aware of the upheaval in Yemen and pitied the baby as she knew that there were groups of militants who were kidnapping little girls.
“If I gave her to the police, she would either be sent to some orphanage or might end up in the clutches of those militants.” The thought itself was sending chills down her spine.
She took a deep breath and fed the baby. As she looked at the baby’s face, her bright eyes soothed her perturbed heart and restless mind. Hardly two months old, the baby did not cry much or perhaps she knew how angry Dilip had been and so was trying to create a place for herself.
Dilip came out relaxed, after sometime and hugged Neera. “I am not against the baby. She is definitely an angel. Remember, I had myself brought a pram when she was born,” he said blessing the little angel with his wide hands on her head, “I am just scared we might have to leave Sana’a soon. The situation is worsening.”
“Moreover we don’t know much about Aslam,” he continued, removing his spectacles. “What if he never returns? He might be a terrorist? Remember? How cruelly Marie was killed in the accident, her face was not identifiable. It might be a part of some conspiracy…”
“Don’t’ worry! Let’s pray! God has his own mysterious ways,” Neera replied with a gentle kiss. She noticed the gray circles under Dilip’s eyes and got up to serve the dinner. But the thoughts of Marie still haunted her.
Marie, the blonde beauty, had been an enthusiastic woman always full of life. Seven years ago when Neera had shifted here, she vividly remembered how much she had hated the dull and conservative Islamic city of Sana’a. But the following year, she had a new neighbor, Marie, always smiling and eager to talk. Together, they had explored so much about Sana’a. A spiritual soul, she had taught Neera to value everything about life. With Marie, Neera had learnt to appreciate the fortified city’s architectural beauty. It was Marie, with whom Neera could see the similarity between Sana’a and her own Pink City. They were on the top of Burj Alsalam Hotel that day, where together they had enjoyed Chai na’naa. That was a beautiful sunset and the chiaroscuro on the sky, with birds going back to their homes, was amazing. That was the day Neera unlearnt cribbing for little things. She was so grateful to Marie.
“Neera, the baby is awake. I think she is searching for you,” called Dilip in a gentle voice from the room.
”Let her play, give her a rattle.” Neera replied, “I am almost through, just give me a few more minutes.” she started rolling the chapattis faster.
She, then, cleared the kitchen and carried the dishes and plates to their small round glass table in the bedroom. Neera glanced the baby and said, “Perfect! Her stomach is full, let her play. We can have our dinner in the mean time.” She again went to the kitchen, brought the casserole and water bottle and settled herself on the chair.
Dilip was observing Neera with his keen eyes and said, “Sometimes you make me feel that she is your own child. I am happy in your happiness but also scared. I hope you understand.” His eyes brimmed with tears.
Neera and Dilip had been trying for a child for the past six years. Neera had conceived twice, but both the pregnancies had terminated in miscarriages. Dilip was fond of kids and his heart was open to all, whereas Neera just wanted one for herself, to call one her own.
After having dinner, she changed the baby’s nappy as the baby had wet herself and then put her to sleep. Dilip watched the news while Neera picked a book to read.
“Suicide Bombers attack two mosques! Schools and offices closed for an indefinite period!” News flashed and before Neera could say anything, the phone rang. “It’s Papa.” he said and muted the TV with remote. Neera could hear everything clearly in that silence, she moved closer to Dilip. “Come back.” said her father-in-law. “Don’t bring anything, just come back. We want to see…” His voice seemed caught in his throat. It was apparent that he was struggling to speak.
“Where’s Mumma? Handover the phone to her and relax. Nothing will happen,” said Dilip while trying to console his father. “The situation is in control and such things have been happening here for the past four years.”
Mumma had taken the phone by then and replied, “Beta! At this juncture of life, we can’t imagine you leaving the world before us. So please come back. We want your shoulder’s intact to carry us when we are dead….Book the tickets now!,” her voice sounded choked and she cut the phone.
There was a pin drop silence. They were both speechless. Neera kissed Dilip and switched off the light. The moment she twirled to put on the night lamp, her eyes saw two blue shining eyes peeping through the window in their room. She grabbed Dilip’s arms and said in a very low voice, “There is someone on the window.”
But before Dilip could turn, the man had realized that he had been seen and turned back to run. Dilip ran out to see, but by the time he was out in the balcony, the intruder had run away. He could only see the back of a man running and taking a turn from Marie’s house. Dilip came back and said “Who could be he?” He gazed at the baby and said, “Aslam? Or some militant? Or the ones kidnapping the girls?”
Neera stood aghast. She knew the kind of kidnappings and tortures militants had been involved in.
“But it could be Aslam or someone sent by him as well,” Neera stammered.
“Could be….”said Dilip with a deep breath, “But why do you think so? Had it been Aslam or a person sent by him … he could have rang the doorbell and spoken to us.”
“Or… ”Dilip continued, “His circumstances are not allowing him to take the baby with him.”
“It could just be another militant, least concerned with a baby” said Neera, trying to sound optimistic.
 “In that case, we are in even more danger as we are Hindus,” said Dilip.
“I think we must leave.” Neera’s hands trembled as she picked up the glass of water. “We can’t afford to live here anymore.” 
“But what about the baby,” said Dilip.
“Say anything! This is my baby. I am her mom. I am not going to give her to anyone. I pledge today.” said Neera, with clarity and firmness in her voice. “I know even Aslam will not be able to take care of a girl child the way I can. Call her a God sent child or anything, but she is my responsibility now.”
She went up to the baby and kissed her forehead gently. The little angel opened her eyes, gave her a smile, and again closed her eyes to sleep. At that moment Neera felt that God was giving her the permission to raise her. Dilip was a witness to this little miracle. He put his arms across her shoulder and promised his support.
The worst was yet to follow.
March 26, 2015. Operation Decisive Storm: Saudi-led airstrikes started the very next day and the air zone of Yemen was sealed. No tickets. No air transfers. Even the markets were closed and a curfew was imposed. They were stuck! This was the first time the troubled city appeared like a dragon, swallowing its own people. None of them had envisaged the war.
Thankfully Neera had bought baby food and grocery to sustain the family for the next few days.
Since they had decided to flee, Neera started packing the main things she could, such as gold, currency, cards and then she packed her clothes. Dilip kept checking the net but even the net was not working most of the time and then followed the power failure. Being an IT personnel, he kept trying through all the gadgets and means.
Amidst the scary sound of fighter planes and missiles, they prayed for their safe exit.
The baby was restless but thankfully she did not cry bitterly. The moment the air strikes stopped at night, Neera again saw two blue eyes peeping into her room and cried out, “Dilip!”
 “But these eyes are harmless, I guess!” said Dilip. “He could have harmed us last night itself. He had a gun in his hands,” said Dilip calmly.”I didn’t tell you as you were already so scared.”
Dilip immediately called two Indian family friends in the neighborhood to spend the night. They readily accepted, as if they were waiting for it. Neera and Dilip had a bigger house so they all came to their house for the night stay.
That night was different. The sirens in the city were frightening. It was scarier for the three kids of the neighbours, especially under the darkness, when curtains could not be opened, two of them screamed, and with this the baby started screaming too. Under the candle light, one of the moms, Seema started telling a story, the other two tots also joined in. As a result, tn the silence the baby went to sleep fast.
By eleven, everyone had slept. The morning siren suddenly opened Neera’s eyes, a siren and not the usual voice of “Allah O Akbar…” from the nearby mosque, reminding her that they were stuck in this war zone. That morning they were all a bundle of nerves.
They had their morning tea together in the living room and discussed the plan while the kids were sleeping. Neera still wanted to relax and so sat with her back against the wall on the carpet. She took a cushion to support her back. Seema sat next to her while others relaxed on the couch.
“Amrit and Dheeraj, go with your wives, pack the main items in a bag and come back fast. We have to be together every hour, every second.” said Dilip “Neera, you three prepare the food for the whole day. We don’t know about the next second. We just have to be ready.”
Meera and Seema helped Neera in the kitchen. After the breakfast, Amrit and Dheeraj rushed to their houses to pack some clothes and valuables. They all were caring for each other like their own family members. For the first time, Neera’s heart cried, when a child cried. For the first time she forced everyone to eat foreseeing that they might not get food the next day. Love was blossoming from every heart. For the whole week, they felt like a sword hanging on their necks.
April 2, 2015. The sun brought with it a ray of hope.
“Air India has received permission to fly to Yemen!” shouted Amrit. He almost jumped around the room with the newspaper still in his hands.
“God! Please be with us today!” prayed Neera and lit a lamp in her small mandir. Meera and Seema also joined her. Meera sang her favourite song.
Teri hai zameen, tera aasmaan. Too bada meherbaan tu bakshish kar.
Neera could feel herself in the place of Simi Garewal in the movie The Burning train. Tears streamed down everyone’s cheeks. They had waited with bated breath for this moment.
They threw their luggage in Dilip’s Official Toyota and rushed to the airport. After minimum paperwork, which included an enquiry about a foreign baby, under the strict vigilance of Indian Army, they were sent to board the first AI flight.
Neera had butterflies in my stomach, especially because of the baby, although Indian army had given a clearance under Operation Rahat. Dilip could see her nervousness and put his arms around her shoulders. She took a deep breath. “Anyone can stop us, Aslam may turn up… those peeping eyes… a militant may snatch the baby… ” her mind was racing till she boarded the flight.
The officers in their white uniforms, navy blue trousers and tie with badges started checking the passengers. There was one standing next to her, she was on the edge of her seat with her eyes on the seconds hand of the watch, till  the officer crossed her looking around and checking the passengers and their baggages. The plane finally the flight took off.
They could not believe, they were all safe and going home. Neera being the happiest as she carried with her the surreal gift of Sana’a, her daughter Sana’a!

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