Fanny was at the art class when I called on her mother, Mae.
When I called on her mother next, to lessen some of my dreary insurance papers and earn that little commission that was a long time in the coming, Fanny was at the dance class. This time they said it was Bharatnatyam.
“Why ‘this time’?” I inquired, “Was there a last time too?” I pushed the papers and forms across their dining table. The forms had such small print, it would take Mae an additional pair of high-index-lensed glasses to squeeze the capital alphabets of her name and details, medical history and address, into those boxes.
“Oh, yes, the last time she learned Bollywood numbers, cha cha cha, and Kathak style dancing.”
“Is she becoming an actress?” I rolled my eyes in mock delight. I had, by now, learned how to entertain my clients and potential clients. Talk sweet. Talk nice. Pet their pets. Bring chocolates. Bring a free book. A rose. A bookmark. Or at least have the most ambitious questions for their children. Always. This time, though, it was for the sake of curiosity.
“Actress?” Mae guffawed. “No. Tomorrow she will want to bungee jump. Or go skiing. Or parasailing for all I know.”
“A talented kid, eh? Wants to do a lot.”
Mae put on her glasses and squinted to read the fine print on the insurance form that was so fine, as if it was created for defaulting and penalties.
I saw her ink-pressing her details into the boxes, feeling sorry for her efforts, but calculating the commission ringing in my bank account.
“My daughter has a disease,” said Mae, “She is like that child who, once her mouth is open, can swallow the whole world into it. Pretty unstoppable. You should see the lists in her diaries. The do-to, sorry, the to-do lists and some checked lists and what not. They run into pages.”
I nodded in delight with a jubilant smile, so used to by now, listening to my clients’ bragging about their children’s teeny-weeny achievements, as if they were a trip to the moon or a National Award nomination. It filled up their worlds. It filled up my ears.
“You must be a proud mother.” I tapped the table twice and neatly filed the insurance papers in a translucent file, beating a path to my exit. My next trip would be six months later. By then this Fanny baby would probably be flying a plane, I supposed.
Six months seems a very long time, sometimes.
I had the fortune of running into many clients, visiting many homes, listening to many happy and sorrowful stories. By the time I visited Mae and Jason again, I had to jog my mind on the Fanny file. Yes, she was still not at home. This time in Europe on a student exchange program. Prague, then Germany.
“How did she do that?” I looked around at their bare, middle-class home. “From where did the money…? Where did you find finances? Did you borrow from a bank? Maybe you need some travel insurance? Do I check for foreign insurance?”
Mae smiled and nodded at Jason, then at me, “Hardly, hardly any money. She had her savings. And she had this plan a long time ago, of going to Europe. She participated in a model walk for salwar kameezes and saris. Some small brand. She took tuitions at home and also at students’ houses teaching Maths, English. She collected enough. Then the exchange program hardly required much. Only the air ticket money. You have to stay in each other’s house.”
I looked around. “So where is the exchanged youngster? Here?”
“He will be coming in next week. Fanny said there is nothing to worry. Just keep good food and a neat bed ready. Just clean the house.”
I forgot my bunch of praises this time. I had no words.
“How old is Fanny?”
“She’s in the ninth standard.”
“I hope I get to see her the next time.”
“We hope too,” said Jason.
I didn’t meet the D’Souzas for a long time again. Their policy would mature only in another five years. It sat and grew in the insurance pool, as I grew my clients list using my learned and practiced honey tongue, my sugar sweet politeness. Praise could work wonders. Listening was the best skill. What I couldn’t remember – names of children, pets, dogs, cats, husbands, wives, old mother’s and father’s ailments, cancer, Alzheimer’s, hip fractures, femur bone replacements, out-of-caste marriages, out-of-body experiences – I noted in a diary and revised before I rang those clients’ doorbells.
Five years later, I wanted to meet the D’Souzas myself. I had a Man Friday, Vinay Babu, by then to do my lowly, grassroots work. It would have been his job to get the papers redeemed through the moneyback check to Mae, but I said I would do it.
Off I fled to the D’Souza’s home. Surely I would be lucky today. I would finally get to meet Fanny, see her for the first time, not through her photographs. See, I didn’t even have to chance upon the diary notes to remember her name.
“So where is your girl? I am dying to meet her.” This time my anticipation was genuine. My joy, real. I really wanted to meet this young girl. Not young thing. Not chit. Not offspring. Fanny. Fanny D’souza.
“She is in the US, working in the… what they call… haan! The Silicon Valley,” said Jason. He produced a picture of Fanny sitting bespectacled, smiling hugely into the frame of the photo, a blurry office filled with computers and cabins in the background.
“When does she ever come home? When is she ever home? With you people?”
I had touched a raw nerve. I had turned unprofessional, personal. Mae wiped her wet eyes with a swift brush of her fingers.
“She has never really been with us, our daughter. Except, maybe, in the first few years of her growing. There was always a strange thing about her. She couldn’t sit still. She could never stay. From the time she was little, she would go to her friend’s house or hang out with them after school. I was working then in a watch company. As she grew up, her school hours increased, her tuition classes increased, her extracurricular sports and dance activities increased. No child did as much as her. She was unstoppable.”
“Even at eight she would come home only at 10 or 11 at night. From school to tuitions, drawing class, guitar practice, karate, dance.”
“Also calligraphy?” said Mae.
“Ah yes!” echoed Jason.
“We have been very annoyed with her, if you are thinking. We have scolded her, threatened to stop those extra classes.”
“But she always got good marks. She hardly ever fell ill. Even if she did, she would still attend those classes.”
“She ate her meals well. She listened to us other than that. Never really fought or back-answered much…”
“She was never there as much…,” I said in my second bout of unprofessionalism. Where was my etiquette evaporating?!
Mae shrugged. By now her eyes were dry. Only her face was flushed.
“Sometimes you give birth to something you don’t know what it is. We thought it would be a…normal family.”
“Life happens and you have to be open to it,” said Jason, and this wasn’t the first time he was saying it, I was certain. “You have to know your role is this…this small world. We are only the medium, the good God says. And things happen. They happen all the time. We have to be open. We love her any ways. She is different. But she is our daughter.”
“She will come home for Christmas for two days,” Mae said.
“Or two hours? Wasn’t she saying she wants to make a quick overnight trip to Goa for some rave party?” asked Jason.
Mae stared at him in mild bewilderment.
I excused myself.
“Alright, we will make do with a quick lunch. Pork roast, chicken sorpotel and her favorite sannas, okay?” said Mae.
My tongue rolled frozen into the practiced pitch of a new medical policy launched three days ago, that I had intended to sell to them. That would have been an irrelevant solution.
I quietly walked away.