“How could my dad be so insensitive and insulting”, I sat angrily and sulked at the thought. Tears floating in my eyes and ready to burst at any moment. I felt so embarrassed in front of all the group members stealing glances at me in the horse carriage. I dabbed the corner of my eyes with a cotton handkerchief and scooped my legs on the deck of the carriage where I was seated. I wanted to shrink myself to the minimum, wishing to magically disappear at this moment. I felt devastated and had raging thoughts about why I had come to this vacation. Fifteen days past the beginning of the holiday and it seemed like only yesterday that we were still planning about it.
It was our school summer vacation and my parents had decided to take a tour of North India. I was superbly excited as it was only recently that my class had studied how holidays are important in our lives. We had learned how holidays provide a refreshing break from the monotony of everyday life and help us celebrate things worth living for. They present an opportunity to visit new places, learn about them, increase our knowledge and build loving memories along the way.
Living in a small town where family outings would hardly go beyond visiting relatives and attending family functions, taking a month-old vacation far and wide to the span of North India sounded like ecstasy in exponential advancement. A refreshing break from the regular norm so far had been a two-hour lunch picnic organized by our school where our excitement had begun at our school premises and ended in a park across the street. We lined up from our school and walked to the garden. An extended lunchtime spent exploring the park, playing ‘Antakshari’ with friends and sharing lunch boxes seemed paramount of enthusiasm at that point.
In our living room, my dad sat on the newly covered maroon sofa, uttering those unbelievable words escalating like music to my ears. I wasn’t ready to believe that just like in science subjects we had practicals after studying the theory, my English theory lesson was about to translate into practical reality. I set down the book I was reading and looked at my dad expectantly with complete attention. My mother sat in a chair next to him and sipped the evening tea from the floral tea-cup in her hand. It was mid-April and scorching summers had already begun. Our school holidays were to last another month and a half. My mother was a teacher and had the pleasure of the summer holidays too. My dad was a District Education Officer and some of his colleagues were planning a month-old trip to a few selective places in North India along with their families. They had asked if he would also like to join and to which my father had gladly agreed. He shared this good news with us over evening snacks and tea. My mother then urged us to start packing as we were expected to leave by the month-end. I couldn’t contain the excitement and ran to my adjoining room to wake up my sister from her late-afternoon nap which had extended into the lovely evening, and tell her all about it.
I can hardly remember the logistics around the vacation planning and the remaining days just flew by in the non-stop exhilaration of packing, repacking, shopping and chattering. We also made sure we finished our holiday homework before leaving. We arrived at the train station on the travel day and we were introduced to our group of fellow-travelers comprising of four of my dad’s colleagues and their families. We exchanged our greetings and started familiarizing ourselves with each other. Apart from me and my sister, who were in class sixth and fifth respectively, there were three other kids in the group. Two of them were toddlers and the third one was a boy who was about our age.
All the group members were luckily seated in the adjacent compartments and as the train gained speed along the route, everyone started getting into the picnic spirit. Exchanging snacks, stories, jokes, and newspapers and occasionally playing Ludo and cards, we reached our first destination, New Delhi. Spending a few days in the majestic capital city and having immense fun exploring the tourist spots and local cuisines there, we headed towards the cultural heritages like Udaipur, Jaipur, and Rishikesh. After spending a good fifteen days sightseeing in these places, we had reached the divine city of Ayodhya.
The most sacred and foremost city in the state of Uttar Pradesh in North India, Ayodhya is famous for Hanuman Garhi apart from other places of interest. Hanuman Garhi is an immensely popular temple revered by the Hindus. Situated at the center of the town, the temple is shaped like a fort and is visited by numerous devotees and tourists all-round the year. It is a grand structure consisting of about 70 steps which lead to the main temple of Lord Hanuman.
Horse-drawn carts or ‘Tongas’ were sought after mode of transport for many tourist attractions including Hanuman Garhi and this seemed like a good option to explore after a tiring day. We had embarked upon a horse carriage from our hotel nearby, to witness the spectacle of this sacred place. It was an evening ‘Darshan’ and I stood beside my mother who sincerely prayed to the Lord bowing her head and closing her eyes. I looked around and although I was consumed by the splendor of the temple, I also felt tired from an almost entire day of walking and sight-seeing. My gaze followed a squirrel that was pacing towards the door. I decided to follow it and squeezed myself past the devotees filling up the temple. At the exit, I realized I had not informed my mother but then taking a look at the crowd and the ordeal I would have to undergo if I tried to go inside again, I sat there awaiting my parents and sister to arrive. I saw an aunty from our group, heading out and advancing towards the carriage. I followed her and anticipated that being in the company of a known adult and the vicinity of our carriage was better than standing alone at the temple exit. We reached the carriage and sat there comfortably.
It was a long wait and I started to get restless. What was taking them so long? It seemed like an eternity before I caught a glimpse of my father walking hurriedly towards the carriage. He reached the carriage and as I was about to open my mouth to complain about the delay, he planted a tight slap on my right cheek. I faintly saw his waving hand and for a few moments was too stunned to realize what had just happened. My hand reflexively reached my reddening cheek and caressed it.
Through my hazy glance caused by the swelling up of tears in my eyes, I spotted my mother who had shortly followed my dad. She was out of breath and was tugging at the hand of my sister dearly. I expected her to rush to my rescue but she stood there stupefied. Amidst my confused thoughts and ringing ears, I heard another aunty in the group who had just arrived at the scene along with my mother, plead to my father to let it go as I was only a child. We were all hurriedly made to sit in the carriage and the carriage driver was instructed to take us back to the hotel.
In this sudden world of confusion, humility, and anger, this middle-aged aunty was my immediate point of solace. She sat next to me briefly stating how my disappearance from the temple had raised the temporary mayhem. My parents thought I was kidnapped. They were distressed and were helplessly looking around everywhere for me. My mother had gone up and down the stairs, multiple times looking for me and my father almost made up his mind to approach the authorities when the ‘knight in shining armor’ this savior aunty spotted them and told them she had seen me going towards the carriage with another lady from our group. And thus, the end of their adversity and the beginning of my misery.
At first, I felt guilty and then saddening grief for the suffering of my parents and in the end, a feeling of humiliation and anger took over. So, what if I came and sat in the carriage? So, what if they were temporarily devoured by the hopelessness of losing me forever? Was it such a big deal? Ultimately, they did find me in a safe place. They could have just told me to be careful in the future. There wasn’t any need to hit me in front of everyone else and insult me by yelling at me. Now everyone knew how careless I had been and would always judge me. I was now angry at my dad and his impulsive reaction.
Although I ended up having some fun during the remaining holiday where everyone had just seemed to have forgotten all about it and my mother later soothing me by justifying that I wouldn’t understand a parent’s anxiety and that my dad had only slapped me because he was so desperate at that moment and relieved to see me at the same time that he could not control his momentary anger. Even when we were back from our holiday and my dad apologized to me several times for raising his hand at me, I felt my dream holiday memory was somewhat scarred. In my selfish childish angst and naïve approach, I had quietly ignored the torment of my parents in those few moments when they thought they had lost me forever.
Time had elapsed with months, years and decades and I had bonded with my aging parents dearly, yet at times I would occasionally have some passing flashback of this incident and never really was convinced with the parental emotions around it.
London is a beautiful city. We had relocated to the UK last year and I was glad to be spending my days in a tourist HubSpot. I was slightly uneasy leaving my career behind in India and moving across continents to accompany my husband who was transferred to London. However, seeing my eight-year-old son thriving in the bustling, multicultural, historical heart of the UK and flourishing in the high-quality education system of the country was a comfort. We stayed in a large principal town in outer London which was only thirty minutes away from the city. I had fallen in love with the town center culture and liked spending time at the high street, shopping, and running errands. Spending my quiet afternoons at the rich libraries and enjoying recurring family fun at the swimming center was enriching amidst the regular hustle-bustle of daily routines.
Exploring the museums and other tourist spots in London during the weekends had become a must, thanks to the easy and convenient public transport system. One such weekend, we were at the famous Madam Tussauds, getting up close with the various lifelike wax statues of eminent people across the globe. We were drowned in the crowd of curious spectators swirling everywhere. Marveling at the wax figures that appeared to have come alive with the swell of humanity around them, we were immensely joyful. My fingers tightly entwined with those of my son’s and holding on to the feeling of safety although I could hardly see his face in the river of the crowd pushing by.
I stopped at the statue of the greatest writer and dramatist, William Shakespeare. I was enthused to take a moment there and discuss with my son about this poet and playwright as I had grown up reading his work and now my son was also studying the famous plays and stories written by him. I tugged at my fingers to urge my son to come ahead and join me, only to stare at my empty hand and my brown handbag entangled there. I was stunned! Was it all along that I was only holding on to my bag thinking I had secured my son’s tiny fingers around my hand or was it only at that moment that I had lost him?
I was transfixed and was jolted out of my shock when I realized someone had just apologized to me for having accidentally stepped onto my foot. I desperately looked around me pushing through the swarm of people. I started profusely sweating and although a while ago I was perfectly fine in the warmth of the crowd in the bitter cold of January, now I suddenly felt claustrophobic in it. My son was not the kind of child who would unwittingly get distracted and wander away. He is an aware smart little boy. Negative thoughts clouded my mind and my heart froze. With awful pit of dread in my stomach and buckling legs, I was a slow-moving nightmare trying to spot my husband who was right behind me all this time and now was abruptly nowhere to be seen. My eyes scanned the room while I was struggling through the horde to find my husband.
It had been a matter of minutes and seemed like an eternity to me. I was only about to faint when I heard my phone ringing. [I was so panic-stricken that my mind had forgotten to decipher I was living in the age of technology and only needed to reach my bag and use my mobile lying in it to call my husband and locate him]. In a flash, I reached for my phone and grabbed it with my life’s count. My husband’s name displayed on the screen with my favorite caller tune playing along. “Hello”, I said in a meager voice. My nervous ears vaguely picked up his words that said ‘they were unable to locate me and hence had moved to the other floor towards the Superheroes section’. Well, on any other occasion I would have had a brief couple’s bickering as expected at such instances, however, right now my only focus area and string of hope was the word “they”. I asked feebly if our son was also there and the dawn of relief made me choke with merriment as he affirmed that he was with him.
I glided through the crowd and jumped the flight of stairs to reach the next floor and to the spot that my husband had quickly mentioned a few seconds ago. I saw my world standing there and ran to them. My son started to complain about how he was bored at the floor we were skimming and hence had asked his dad to move to the superheroes section and that he was sorry for having forgotten to tell me before splitting. I instinctively flashed my hand in the air wishing to slap him hard. However, I stopped midway as I realized in that split-second the familiarity of the situation and a parent’s plight in contemplating the thought that he/she had lost their child and the anxiety around it. [Also, that, in a country like the UK we cannot freely hit our child as it is considered a punishable act]. Instead, I hugged my son tightly with tearful eyes. I couldn’t help but flashback my memory of childhood and how the circle of life had brought me to realize the mental state of my parents from that particular incident of my childhood where they thought they had lost me.
Strangely, every so often it is only with time that we learn some lessons and I could now completely relate to my father’s anxiety and the driven action, from that day in my childhood. Although I have mentioned this to my mother several times ever since, how I wish my father was still alive so that I could apologize to him for having harshly judged him that day.