The Closed Door by Vrinda Baliga

Lekha stood on her balcony surveying the weekday morning school rush – kids in uniforms of all hues greeting friends, racing each other to their respective buses; the last-minute dash by a child or parent to retrieve the school project or lunch box forgotten at home; younger children being goaded along with hugs, kisses, and an occasional reprimand to hurry up. Theirs was an upscale gated community of nearly five hundred apartments spread across ten tall buildings that stood like sentinels around a central park and clubhouse. The community had a sizeable population of children, so this morning frenzy was part of the community routine. Lekha noticed an obsessive parent carrying a spurned glass of milk right up to the bus, in hopes of embarrassing her reluctant child into finishing it. There was a comfort to be had in the fact that people could worry about such trivialities. The chaos was reassuring in its ordinariness. This was a morning like any other morning. Why shouldn't it be?


Ritwik's bus was parked at the very end of the line. Lekha watched him weave his way through the crowd towards it. Was there any reaction – nudges or exchanged glances, some muttered remark, perhaps – as he passed by? No, people were far too busy with their own children. She realised she was holding her breath, and forced herself to breathe normally. Ritwik reached his bus and climbed in, and she allowed her relief to turn into indignation. What had she thought would happen? Had their family turned into some kind of social outcasts overnight? And even assuming that were so – which it was not – who in their right mind would ostracise a child, for heaven's sake? Since the previous evening, her imagination had gone haywire, taking her down dire paths that left logic and reasoning far behind. It had been outright cowardly of her, making Ritwik go to the bus alone like that. He had not kicked up a fuss, unquestioningly believing the excuse she had invented about having to settle the bill with the newspaperman. Trust, that's what it was. That blind trust that children place in their elders. Before they learn better. Before they are confronted by the betrayals those very elders are capable of.

With the children all aboard the bus, the crowd of parents on the sidewalk began to resolve into smaller groups, as usual. What were they talking about? How many people knew? Everybody? No, that wasn't possible. They were probably just discussing the upcoming Olympiad exams. But wasn't that Rachna there? She probably knew. She lived in the same building and she made it her business to know such things. And if she knew, it was only a matter of time … Lekha shook her head, abruptly. What was she thinking? What did it matter what Rachna knew? What did it matter what anyone was saying? Was that the issue at hand here?


It is him. The ramifications of those three words had not even begun to sink in yet. She was stuck between a treacherous cliff on one side, and an abyss of silence on the other, both of which she could not wholly comprehend…
The bus started. Ritwik put out his hand out of his window and waved up to her.  Even as she waved back, she was aware of adult faces near the bus turning and looking up towards her balcony. She fought the urge to step back, and stood there resolutely, waving till the bus made the U-turn and exited through the gates.

Back indoors, she went into the living room, picked up the newspaper, leafed through a couple of sheets, put it down again, went to the dining table and buttered a slice of toast, nibbled on it as she stood at the kitchen counter looking at the vegetables she had set out to cut, picked up a knife, then set it down again, and, abandoning both the toast and the vegetables, went out into the living room once more. Why was she behaving like a stranger in her own house? She glanced uneasily at the guest room. The door remained closed and there was no sound from inside. Yet, she knew Appa, although she could no longer bring herself to call him that, was awake; it was well past the time he usually woke. He knew, or at least suspected something, she was certain of that. Breakfast was still laid out on the table. He usually finished his breakfast when she went down to drop Ritwik at the bus. But, of course, she hadn't gone today. Should she call him? And, then what?

Lekha and her father-in-law had established a system of sorts since his arrival a couple of weeks ago, a system that seemed built mainly around avoiding each other as much as was practically possible for two people who were at home all day, under the same roof. This had not been her intention – she had wanted to get to know Nikhil's father better – but after a manner, she had gone with it, when it became clear that Appa stayed aloof not out of awkwardness, but out of choice.

Nikhil should have been the bridge between them; instead, he had somehow only accentuated the sense of reserve on both sides. Mealtimes had been especially awkward, with an almost palpable discomfort settling over the dining table. The clink of cutlery was the only sound punctuating the long silences that Lekha would attempt to break by asking Ritwik about school. Ritwik, though, had outgrown the unreserved childish chatter of his earlier years. Besides, even he seemed to be infected by the mood of the table, and responded in little more than monosyllables. In all of two days, he had started insisting on eating dinner in front of the television once again, and they had given in with little protest.

That left the mid-morning cup of tea that Appa was accustomed to. And though Lekha had soon come to become weary of the daily ritual, she felt obliged to give him company at least in that. So, every morning, she sat with him trying to draw him out with small talk, but with little success.

‘I hope you are enjoying your retirement?’ she had tried, once.

‘Who enjoys retirement?’Appa had retorted. ‘I would have preferred to continue teaching.’

She had been surprised. ‘But you opted for voluntary retirement, didn't you?’

He looked up at her. ‘Voluntary retirement? Is that what Nikhil told you?’ His smile was not friendly. ‘No, it was anything but voluntary.’

Lekha had always known that Nikhil shared a kind of formal, distant relationship with his father. When they had moved to the US soon after their wedding, for long years there had been little communication between Nikhil and his father except for an occasional phone call, and even those tended to leave Nikhil in a sour mood. Initially, she had been puzzled, for she had assumed that someone who had lost his mother at a young age would be extra close to the one parent he had left.

‘This is the way it's always been with us,’ Nikhil had said, curtly, when she had tried to probe. ‘Not all families are alike. Yours is large and close and friendly. Mine is not, and that's that.’

It had been early enough in their marriage for the tone of that conversation to leave a lasting sting and a wariness to tread too far again into that territory. Besides, they had become absorbed in other diversions – the challenges of setting up home and raising a child in a foreign land – and the matter had been relegated in time to the basement of their lives, just another unopened, discarded artefact amidst the usual detritus of every busy marriage. And there it had remained as long as they had been living half way across the planet. But, a few months ago, they had moved back to India and settled down in Bangalore, just a few hours away from Chennai. Appa's visit was inevitable. And Lekha had even seen it as an opportunity for closer familial bonds.

She had been aghast, therefore, when Nikhil had announced that he would have to go to Mumbai on work, just days after Appa arrived. 

‘Your father's visiting us for the first time,’ she had protested. ‘He's only just arrived. What will he think? Besides, Ritwik and I hardly know him. Can't the trip wait?’

Nikhil had the grace to look shamefaced when he muttered something about the work being ‘urgent’, but he had left all the same. Upset and irritated, Lekha had not spoken to him in all the days since his departure. Until yesterday.



It had started in the late evening. Appa had gone out for his walk after dinner. Lekha had been sitting with Ritwik, getting his homework done, when the doorbell rang.

She was surprised to see the group of people outside – Mr Verma, the president of the residents' association, Mr Kumar, the security-in-charge, a couple of other association representatives and residents from her building.
‘Sorry to disturb you at this time, Mrs Krishnan. But we would like a word with you and Mr Krishnan,’ Mr Verma said.

‘Uh, Nikhil is out of town,’ she said, confused. Had they missed a maintenance payment or something? She didn't think so, and even if they had, it hardly warranted so many people at the door. ‘What is this regarding?’

Mr Verma looked at the others in indecision. Then, Arun Mishra, a neighbour from the fourth floor gestured in the affirmative, and Mr Verma said to Lekha, apologetically, ‘Could we still have a word? It's … an urgent matter.’

‘Yes, of course, please come in,’ Lekha said, stepping aside to let them in.

‘Mommy, can I play on the computer?’ Ritwik said, sensing his opportunity. Lekha nodded, distractedly.

‘So. How can I help you gentlemen?’


‘Uh, Mrs Krishnan, I'm afraid this is a bit of a delicate matter,’ Mr Verma began. He was a mild-mannered person in his sixties, and he spoke in his habitual gentle, though circuitous manner. ‘We request you not to take offense, and please understand this is as difficult for us too…’


Arun Mishra clucked his tongue impatiently.


Lekha looked from him to Mr Verma. ‘What's the matter? Is it something Ritwik did?’ There had been incidents of graffiti and such pranks in the community, but Ritwik was far too young to indulge in such…


‘Oh, no, no, nothing like that. He's a sweet child.’ Mr Verma said.


‘Verma, please get to the point,’ Arun Mishra said.


‘Uh, yes, yes. Mrs Krishnan, there have been some um … incidents over the last week or so.’


‘What kind of incidents?’


‘Young children, umm, girls actually, in the building have been,uh … troubled in the elevator…’


‘Troubled?’ Mishra addressed Lekha directly. ‘Molested, is more like it. My daughter was touched, fondled…’ He shook his head in disgust. ‘Some of her friends living in this block have also had similar experiences...’


Vikram Murthy, another resident from the building, joined in, ‘Yes, my daughter, too. These kids are barely ten, for God's sake! One would think that in a community such as this, with 24/7 security, they would be safe, but…’ He threw up his hands in frustration.


Lekha stared at them uncomprehending. ‘That's terrible,’ she said.


Mishra was about to respond, but Mr Verma gestured to him to calm down.


‘Mrs Krishnan, like I said, these incidents have only been happening from the last week or so,’ he said. ‘The children all describe an elderly person wearing spectacles.’ A sudden understanding settled like a heavy weight in Lekha's stomach. ‘Initially, we thought it might be one of the hired drivers, or one of the maintenance staff in the building. We asked the security folks to keep a closer watch.’ He indicated the security-in-charge. ‘But the perpetrator is not among them. The security staff have reason to believe he's a resident…’


‘You're beating around the bush again, Verma," Mishra intervened, once more. ‘My daughter pointed him out yesterday. There is no doubt.’


‘Ma'am, how long has your … uh ... father…?’


‘Father-in-law,’ she responded, dully.


‘Ma'am, we wouldn't be here if there was the slightest doubt. Please speak about this to your husband … and your father-in-law.’


‘Why don't we speak to the fellow?’ Mishra said. ‘In fact, it's the police we should be speaking to.’


Lekha sat there, stunned, unable to respond. Was this really happening?


Mr Verma said to him, ‘Look, Mishra, we all know the Krishnans. There is a young child in this house, too. There's no need to drag the whole family through…’ He turned to Lekha. ‘Ma'am, it's best if your father-in-law leaves as soon as possible. Please speak to your husband and help us resolve this at the earliest. Another such incident cannot be allowed to happen.’


The rest of the evening passed in a daze. She hardly recalled their leaving, or how Ritwik finished his homework, but she was in the bedroom putting him to bed when she heard the door open. It was him, returning from his walk much later than usual. Had he come earlier, seen all the footwear of the visitors outside the door and decided to return later? Had he guessed what they had come about? She sat in the dark, listening to the sounds from the living room – the scrape of the chair near the door, the opening and closing of the shoe-cupboard. His very presence in the house seemed a violation. Thankfully, he did not linger in the living room watching television as was his practice, but went directly to his room and shut the door.


Lekha looked once more towards the guest room.  As long as the door remained closed, this pretence of normality could go on. But once it opened, as it inevitably had to during the course of the day,  they – she and Nikhil – would have to face up to everything that had been neatly cordoned off from their lives. For, this was not just about the events of the previous evening. She had thought after that visit that nothing could possibly be worse. But, Nikhil's words had left her far more shaken than anything Mishra and the others had said.


She had called Nikhil late that night, after Ritwik had fallen asleep and the light under the guest room door had gone out. She stumbled over her words so much, she wondered if she was making any sense. On the other end of the line, though, there had been no shock, no outrage.


All Nikhil said, at the end of it all, was, ‘They're right. It is him.’


There was a long silence. Lekha was too stunned to speak. What did that mean? That he had known? For how long? And how had he known in the first place? There must have been some incident in the past…. One? More than one? What kind of incidents? She didn't ask him any of this. They weren't questions they could casually discuss over the phone after ten years of marriage. No more than she could articulate that other stream of thought: why hadn't he said something, at least in warning? He knew, and yet he let this man come here? He left him alone with us? What if we had a daughter, not a son? Would he have still gone off to Mumbai? And on, and on. Was there even an end to the depths these questions could plumb, once they started?


All she said was, "What do we do now?"


‘I'm coming home,’ Nikhil said. ‘I'll be there by tomorrow evening.’


‘Okay,’ she said.


Silence, once again.


At last, he spoke. ‘Lekha, he's my father.’


Those words had angered her. Your father, she had thought. There's no reason Ritwik and I should be dragged into this. But now, in the deceptive stillness of the house in which everything seemed to fade into irrelevance against the stark outline of that closed door, she heard the torment in his voice – the anger, the bitterness, the sheer helplessness trapped in those three words – ‘He's my father.’



Vrinda Baliga lives in Hyderabad, India. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies and literary magazines in India and abroad. She has won prizes in the Unisun Short Story Competition 2011, and in the Katha Fiction Contests 2010 and 2012 organised by India Currents. She was awarded the Lavanya Sankaran Fellowship by the Sangam House International Writers' Residency in 2014.