He was graying at the temples, early signs of baldness showing up on his usually luxurious hair. With horn rimmed glasses fixed on the bridge of his aquiline nose, Rajat Shukla pondered over the contents of the day’s newspaper, probably trying to find the meaning of this mystery called life from the fine print of the newspaper. At 46 years , Rajat Shukla remained a bachelor, not that he was worried or felt out of place amongst his peer group, he considered himself happily single and loved his pet German Shephard Dog, Ceasar as much as one would love his own child, his only faithful companion for many years now. No ones knows why Rajat Shukla remained unmarried, and at his age, he did not even feel the need for a female companion. Rajat kind of accepted this situation fiat accompli probably thinking to himself that since he could live his life so far for 46 years without feeling the need to be married, what is another 12 to 15 years more. He could do without being married anyways. These were possibly the thoughts running through the mind of Rajat Shukla, as he kept himself engrossed in the pile of newspapers that he subscribed to every morning when he was jerked back to the realm of reality by the mellifluous rendition of ‘ik onkar’ on his Blackberry Bold ringing on the centre table in front of him. Picking up his cellphone, he adjusted his bifocal glasses, and peered into the screen trying to recognize the caller who had broken his early morning countenance. Unable to place the number which was flashing on its screen,he put the handset to his ears and said a bored “hello”. Getting no response from the other end can be a frustrating experience for most, especially when one has least expected the call. His “hello” turned from bored to curious to frustrated to exasperated in a matter of seconds. ‘Hello papa' a scared and worried girl’s voice answered from the other end. ‘Hello, who is this?” replied Rajat. “ Papa its is me, Payal”. She was scared, confused and at her wits end and needed to talk to her father. “Look here, Listen to me” is all that he could manage to speak before Payal’s inconsolable sobbing drowned his usual baritone. Payal was hysterical over the phone. “ Papa I am so sorry please forgive me” was one sentence that was being constantly repeated in between the sobs. Payal went on “ Papa , it has taken me a lot of courage to make this call, please don’t hang up on me . I wish I could understand what you had been telling me so long. I wished I had a bit more faith in your upbringing Papa, I should have listened to you and I shouldn’t have come here Papa.”
Clarity of thought was usually the USP of Rajat Shukla, and at that moment he could have kicked himself for not being able to guess the situation right away. Age probably had slowed down his oft quoted “OODA” cycle. Getting his mind back to the conversation, Rajat blurted into his handset ‘whats the matter Payal? Its all going to be fine. Just go on and tell me what is bothering you.’ ‘Papa, you were right and I have been wrong always. I got misled by people and let you down. You had warned me Papa, that its not a safe world out here and I did not listen to you then. This isn’t a place for people like us Papa. These top models put up a façade of hard work,and glamour Papa. You cant achieve everything by sheer hardwork here in this industry, you also need to compromise on your principles, that I am never going to do.” Payals sob had now turned into an incessant rain of unseen tears which Rajat could visualize streaming down her kohl lined eyes and smudging her carefully applied make up. Rajat now was able to perfectly comprehend Payal’s state of mind and the protective paternal instinct in him took over ‘Payal where are you now beta, you ok na baby?” he spoke with a concern in his voice which surprised him. ‘Papa please forgive me, I want to come back home Papa, I promise you I will never do anything like this ever again” Rajat now calmed himself and spoke ‘ Payal you are my brave girl beta, and brave girls don’t cry this way. Everything is fine baby. You know Papa can never be upset with his baby. You just come back home right away my child.’ Payal says ‘Papa, you have forgiven me na ,’ ‘ yes of course my baby just come back home’ ‘Thank you Papa, I love you’ were the last words that Rajat Shukla could barely hear before the line went dead. He sat up straight now, thinking to himself. Who was this Payal, what did he know about her anyways. He could now make out that Payal had left home after a fight with her folks to try her luck at being a model and was now disillusioned. But he did also understand this much that the identity of this Payal was actually an immaterial fact. What mattered more at that moment was that she was someone’s daughter just like his would have been had things not been the way they were and this Payal could only think of one man in her times of distress. The first man she ever knew. Her hero, her father. For one brief moment Rajat Shukla became the father of a stranger in distress and the realization dawned upon him that had he at that time spoken the truth to Payal that he wasn’t infact her father and that she had dialed a wrong number then probably Payal would never have been able to pick up the strength to make that call to her father ever again. With these thoughts running in his mind he carelessly picked up the remote of the television and clicked a few random buttons, not out of interest but out of a sheer need to distract himself when his fingers paused at a familiar Kishore Kumar voice singing ‘ Zindagi kaisi hai paheli hai.. kabhi ye hasaye kabhi ye rulaye’. As he pondered over those lyrics, Rajat Shukla learned something more. No matter what you have seen or experienced in life, there is always that one moment which remains forever etched in the recesses of the mind.