Updated: Sep 13
If at times, being a part of a family is a living hell then sometimes, not having one is also a living hell. To most of us, it is the need to be loved and the importance of receiving the affection we seek are the factors that dictate the lives we lead. Our ups and downs mean nothing on a professional level when our lives are saturated with misery as we cling to what we haven’t been given. “The Third Side” by Harsha Modukuri is a story of how two characters who have the same need but come from two opposite positions meet and find peace in each other’s company after leading miserable lives.
His unruly hair hiding half his face, his hands and legs trying hard to teeter through the mud, Vinay tried not to fall off as the bag on his shoulders weighed too much for his frail body. He was excited though. He’d been selected as a winner in four of the competitions, and he’d get prizes for them on the coming annual day. So, the rain hadn’t completely dampened his emotions and he expected an easy walk home from school. As much as he wanted to return home along with his friends, they had cycles and he had to always walk.
All throughout his journey, there’s only one thing that’d been running in his mind for an hour and that was how to ask his parents to come for the school’s annual day celebrations. They never attended any event on their own and even when requested, they always had an excuse ready. Even then, this year was special for him and he wanted his parents there. So, he decided to ask them politely and even explain the events and everything if needed. Excited, he pushed open the gate and scanned the windows of the hall. There’s no one in it. So Dad wasn’t home. He walked in and set aside his bag and called his mother. There was no response. All right. She’s sleeping and is sick again. He felt sorry for his mother. He never knew why but he suspected there was more to the story his parents told him about their love and the eventual marriage. This isn’t love. This can’t be. He never saw any affection between his parents. His father loved him, sure, and his mother loved her son the way every mother would do, but was there ever a tinge of love between them? He’d no idea and there’s always one or more secrets lurking in those quarrels and shouts. They never ate dinners together, they never went out to see movies. They never did anything as a family. Vinay thought many times to ask his mother about this, but he couldn’t come up with the proper words and the embarrassment of hurting her caused dread in his stomach. But again, there was no way he could have put it without hurting either of his parents. He’s fourteen and just beginning to understand and see things in a different way. Life wasn’t too reductive and binary enough like before. Dad wasn’t home. “Oh it was one of those days of too much work at the office” is what he used to think earlier. Now he certainly knew that Dad wasn’t home because he hated being here and there was definitely somewhere else he’d be peaceful and comfortable. A place where he met his old friends or probably, a place where he’d never have to see the faces of his wife and son. His thoughts came to a halt as he heard a whimper from the bedroom. Realising he must attend to his mother, Vinay walked into the room to find her awake and smiling at him. “I’m sorry about not making anything for you today Vinu.” “I’m not feeling hungry maa.” “Why don’t you go out and get yourself something?” “I don’t want to go maa... it’s raining.” “Oh... is he home yet?” Vinay just nodded saying no and his mother’s face couldn’t help but reveal her sorrow.
In the end, it took Vinay four more years to stumble across the truth that he thought would set him free and cleanse his mind once and for all. But it only brought more burden and pain to his life. Initially, he thought it was one of those regular fights wherein in the end, his father would spend most of the night watching television and not eating at the table. But Vinay had no idea that this was going to be a different one.
His mother had been brave and patient and she always stood up for herself. Anything and everything could become a point of contention and Vinay at the age of eighteen was convinced that his parents were itching for a fight. It’s almost like they hated when everything was calm and fine and now didn’t even bother about him. They acted as if he had never existed.
On another rainy day as it drizzled, Vinay was back from school and from the gate, he was greeted with loud shouts, vessels crashing and steel plates clanking. Then he saw two figures standing six feet apart, one hunched and not able to stand properly, the other with a monstrous visage, ready to pounce on anyone. He did not dare to enter the home and hid behind the main door listening to them.
“I wouldn’t have married you if you were not pregnant.”
“Then maybe you should have had some restraint or at least help me ab...”
“We were having fun before things got serious!”
“I loved you.”
“I did too but not enough to spend a lifetime with you.”
“You should have told me that nineteenth years ago. We could have avoided all of this. We could have put an end to all this suffering and misery.”
“I had no choice. Everyone around insisted we should marry.”
“So you married me to torture and seek revenge?”
That silence was chilling and that was the end of it. At last, Vinay found the missing pieces he was looking for the last couple of years. Though he knew his parents didn’t love one another, he didn’t expect such hate too. A couple of hours later, Vinay realised, it isn’t just hate but more of a man holding everything in his life against someone.
This addressed a lot of questions, but it also raised a slew of new ones that he hadn’t dared to ask either of his parents. For a time, his father and mother were together. The woman was madly in love with him, but the man was simply infatuated and looking for something else. Instead of facing this difficult fact and hurting her once, he decided to make her life miserable on a daily basis. The Gods, however, had other ideas, and they cut short the life of this woman and granted her some mercy.
After a long day at the office, Vinay returned all wet on his bike as it poured to see his father waiting at the entrance. He knew something was wrong but after a brief discussion with his father, he couldn’t help but control himself when he asked, “Cancer?” “Yes. She lived with that disease for eight years.” “Eight years? Why was I not told? It’s not that I lived in a different house.” “Your mother insisted on that. She thought that’d make you sadder.” “Sounds more like convenience. A betrayal if I have to choose the correct word.” “Whatever... I don’t have time to argue with you about that.” “You didn’t have time to tell your son about his mother’s health. So I don’t blame you.” “That isn’t the story. See, I spent a good deal of my life living with someone I hate. Now I see this as a release, a release from everything that kept me chained. So I want to move out and live with someone I love.” Fed up, Vinay pointed towards the main gate as he said, “Go on...” “Yes, and as for you, you’re twenty-five and you have a job. I will leave the house and everything else to you. Just don’t expect me to take responsibility for your life. Even if I did, you’d hate me for that. I know this because I hate what my parents did in the name of responsibility..” Exhausted, Vinay closed his eyes as he said, “You don’t have to explain all of that Dad...” “Good. I will stay in touch.” As the middle-aged man walked away, Vinay thought, “I hope not. I hope you forget that you have a son and live the life you always wanted.”
Saatwika fixed her gaze on the ceiling, the fan, and the stunning arrangement of various pictures that sparkled in the dim light. They’re stickers of some kind. She recalled a brief conversation with Sandhya, who had come to see her. This was after the Gift had come for Sandhya of course. That was what moving out meant for the kids in the orphanage.
The parents would arrive first, and the kid would have to spend a few days or longer at the residence of the adoptive parents, after which the parents would decide whether to keep the child or return him. That sounded cruel to Saatwika. She often thought, “What if I like the house and the people there and they decide to send me away? What if I don’t like how they treat me and yet should I accept it as the chance of luck and find my place?” She knew she wasn’t to make a choice, a choice that’d probably make or break her life. Nonetheless, they called it ‘The Gift’.
The pictures on the ceiling dimmed out, one by one, leaving a little cat picture on the corner of the room. Recalling their name, Saatwika remembered the name ‘Radium stickers’ and switched on the light so that the other pictures would absorb some light and well, give company to the lonely cat.
The door opened and a middle-aged man was in the way, his eyes squinting at the girl.
“Is anything the problem?”
“You turned on the light?”
“I wanted to see the stickers again, all of them.”
“I’m afraid it’d take hours for that to work. You should sleep, Saatwika”, he smiled.
And the lights went off and the door’s closed again.
As the sunset on a cold evening, the warden asked, “But I don’t understand what you’re saying. She’s a very good girl. She’s pretty. She’s a bright student. Anyone would love to adopt her.”
Sipping his tea while facing the warden, the man in his thirties replied, “It’s not that she’s not an adorable girl. It’s got something to do with her past. I can definitely see she’s a lively girl and catches everyone’s eye. Tell me ma’am why she isn’t adopted till now?”
Disappointed, the warden replied, “We just couldn’t find a proper family. That’s all.”
“Convenient as it is, but it is a lie. I know it and you know it too. It is because her mother was a prostitute.”
Glancing at the well-off brute, the warden assured, “Was a prostitute. She died and the girl had no idea. There’s no one who came forward to claim her. There won’t be any problems or complications about that.”
“Exactly. We don’t want any complications. The truth cannot be hidden for a long time and it will haunt her for the rest of her life. She wouldn’t be accepted by our extended family.”
“Sir, you know we can work together to bury the truth for good.”
Unfolding his legs and leaning forward, the man placed his cup of tea on the table before asking, “I just wish there was an easy way out of this. It’s not that we hate her. On the contrary, we feel sorry for her.”
“Well, you took her home, you bought new clothes for her. You fired up her hopes and now how can I break her poor little heart?”
“I can make it up to her. We don’t want her in our house, sure but we’re willing to deposit some money...”
Fed up, the warden concluded, “No sir, I don’t think you deserve any respect and I am glad I can show that discourtesy on your face. You made it easy for me. Please go away.”
Saatwika came back from school and the warden asked her to meet her. Even though she knew it was about the adoption visit and most of her friends would be cheerful about it, Saatwika wasn’t. She has already had too many bad experiences with them, and now she’d rather prefer to spend her childhood in this orphanage.
“It is a very good family, Saatwika. They liked your photos. They even talked to your School Principal.”
“They won’t like me when they come to know about my past.”
“You can’t be so sure about it. There are generous people…”
“You mean they could be the couple who won’t think that the child of a prostitute would become like her mother?” asked Saatwika looking at the floor.
Lifting her head, the warden replied, “No one has ever said that and no one would ever say that.”
“That’s what the previous couple meant by complication, ma’am.”
Holding her hand, the warden said looking into her jaded eyes, “We shouldn’t give up every time life seems too bleak Saatwika. It is our job to keep seeking.”
A faint smile appeared on Saatwika’s face and the warden immediately instructed, “Now I want you to spend two days with this new couple too and give them a chance just like they are trying to give you a chance.”
After six more adoption visits, Saatwika was finally able to convince her warden that no one was interested in taking her. Her past stood behind her, ominous and threatening. It was wise of those parents to walk away from something like this, she thought. There’s no point in living with someone who just had pity for you and for those who were fortunately not pitiful, they tried to restrict her a lot because of their insecurities, so much so that it almost felt like a prison.
Years flew by and Saatwika graduated, got a job and left the orphanage. Her luck in men seemed to be the same as her luck with adopted parents. She met a lot of them and none of them proved to be honest and faithful. While she showered all the love she could, she rarely received anything in return. There were physical desires and passion, but all of it evaporated with the sunrise and in place of them, there was this hesitation, suspicion and uncertainty.
For a while, she kept believing it was going to get better but time and again, life beat her down. As soon as she entered her thirties, she started living alone and preferred a place where families lived -- families with grandparents and children. Families that saw and endured one storm after another and stood together to give their children a chance at life. However, not everyone was ready to give her a house to live in because a free young woman could derail marriages. That’s the most common excuse she’d been asked to believe.
Fortunately, after a long search, Saatwika found a new house of her own choosing in one such area. There lived a simple little family across from her. A tall handsome young man, his wife and a little boy who was too shy to meet anyone’s eyes. Saatwika longed to start a conversation with this family, but none of them was approachable.
The man seemed to be too busy with his work and was rarely seen at home. The woman rarely stepped out and even when she did, she looked like she’s not interested in anything but her illness. She never smiled, but rarely looked at people and when asked a question, her answers were short.
The youngster kept to himself, and everyone could set their clocks by watching his comings and goings. He never took a different route, and he was never seen interacting with anyone other than his parents and two friends. Saatwika felt bad for him. He should have been mine, the boy deserves every bit of love but the parents are too busy and hateful to appreciate the gift they have. Oh, how ironic, I always wanted to fit in yet I couldn't find a home, this boy has everything, yet there was no love.
However, it was loneliness that bonded the naive wife to Saatwika over time. Though she never spoke much about her family issues, Saatwika could clearly see for herself how her husband had affairs and wouldn’t even bat an eye if his wife killed herself. As their bond grew, she heard the truth that he never loved her in the first place and was forced to marry her considering the circumstances.
However, before Saatwika felt a moment of pity for the husband’s ill fate, she couldn’t help but see the suffering and torment he inflicted upon his wife and his child. Looking at the three of them who had everything but responsibility and commitment, Saatwika wanted nothing but to help her friend in her family life. But in time, things only got worse.
Saatwika’s friend died and her passing was followed by the parting of ways of the son and father. The home that she sought to help withered like a tree in a storm.
In hopes of honouring her friend’s memory, Saatwika tried to advise the boy every step of the way. In the beginning, he pretended to listen to her. With time, he neglected her and in the end, he shut her out of his life by just disappearing one day. He was never seen in that street, nor was there any address of the communication. Saatwika tried to reach out to his father, but the man was reluctant to help her.
“He can take care of himself,” he said.
“You don’t worry about anything. He has a job, he has enough money, and owns a house...”
“But no one ever loved him right?”
And the father cut the call. Even though she knew Vinay was setting himself up to fail big, there was nothing Saatwika could do.
Years later, Saatwika saw the lights in her opposite house all lit and the doors were open. She wanted to walk in and look at the boy, but she was not so sure. Does he remember me? She figured she’d wait out the day and meet the boy if he showed up on the street. That didn’t happen as she fell asleep sitting on her balcony and the boy left his house in the middle of the night.
Later she came to know that the boy married a girl and the marriage was unsuccessful and as part of the divorce agreement he had to sell the house and give some money to his wife. That made her very anxious and sad. She would have guided him and he could have avoided all of this. He was scammed, definitely. I can see that. Someone thought he’s easy prey and used him. But not anymore. She searched and searched for him but was to no avail. Nothing showed up, not even a single thread that could take her somewhere.
The next news she heard was about his arrest. The boy became a man and a drunkard-- in that order and created a bit of nuisance before someone’s house and they got him arrested. She went to the police station to meet him. But he was already released and again there was nothing for her to go on.
Five years later, tired and fed up, Saatwika visited her old orphanage; she found the building dilapidated and unoccupied. There were so many memories there, most of them pleasant and happy. Visiting the new warden’s office, she was taken to her old warden’s room. Sitting before her mistress who was now bedridden, Saatwika greeted her. The warden smiled, turning towards her. With teary eyes, Saatwika confessed, “I have come to admit my failure to find what I seek mistress.”
Still smiling serenely, the warden replied, “Fear not Saatwika. Sometimes a lifetime isn’t enough but we have to keep going, child.”
Broken, Saatwika asked, “But I don’t see why I should anymore?”
Extending her hand the warden pulled her close as she replied, “Simply because you could and you should Saatwika.”
Approaching her, Saatwika replied, “But he is spiralling down into madness and is ruining himself...”
Placing her hand on her cheek, the warden didn’t even ask if it was her son or boyfriend or husband but simply replied, “So do all of us at one point or the other in our lives Saatwika. None of us could truly stop the fall no matter who we are and no matter what we can do but we could always be there to help them rise.”
Looking into her warden’s hopeful eyes, Saatwika said, “But I can help him stop the fall.”
With a smile, the warden replied, “I could have helped my daughter choose a better man to marry than a cheat. I could have helped you from wasting your life seeking a family and I could have helped many others lost in their journeys seeking things that don’t make any difference to anyone. But… the harsh reality of life is that you could never help those who don’t seek it.”
With tears rolling down, Saatwika asked, “So we just see them fall?”
The warden simply nodded her head in agreement and Saatwika hesitantly asked, “What if the fall is the last of them?”
As her smile disappeared, the warden lost in her thoughts replied, “Then we live with the loss and pain they have left us behind.”
A moment of silence followed before the warden continued, “But to give up on them as they give up on us isn’t just cruel. The regret of it shall consume our entire existence and haunt us till our very end.”
Tapping on her cheek and seeing the smile reappear, the warden said, “I think you haven’t failed yet child…”
This story is available in paperback & ebook.