Her smile says it all.
'DAD!' Ela called out. 'I need your help….! We have a Maggie noodle hair emergency!'
'I'll be with you in just a sec,' Ryan called, turning off the stove and rushing to his daughter's room.
'IT'S STUCK!' Ela fussed as she tugged on her comb. 'I can't make the parting myself; you know that, and the teeth of the comb are stuck in my hair. Again!'
'Hang on, Ela, your Dad has got this,' he said calmly.
'Ouch!' Ela cried.
'Almost done….' Ryan said patiently, untangling her curly hair.
'Dad... can I get a haircut? 'Or can I just shave my head?' Ela asked, grinning ear to ear.
Oh! Dad! Please!! Pretty please!' Ela begged.
'I said no!' he said sternly.
'Ela, you are perfect just the way you are as he held Ela's face in his big hands. 'Look at your baby picture hanging on the wall. There's not a single strand of hair on your head. But when your hair started growing, it was like baby springs bouncing around.'
Ela let out a long sigh. 'Ok, Dad.'
'It's fine the way they are. Pass me the rubber band,' he said, patting her on the shoulder and holding her plat in the other hand. All done!'
'Now, come on, quickly get your things and eat your breakfast,' Ryan said, heading towards the kitchen. 'I don't want you to be late for school.'
'What's for breakfast?' She asked, jumping off the bed.
'Omelette and toast,' he replied, turning the stove back on.
'Oh goodie, can I help you beat the eggs?'
'Sure, you're always such a big help,' Ryan smiled.
Soon enough, Ryan dropped his daughter at the bus stop and waved goodbye to her as she boarded the school bus. He stood there for a few seconds watching the bus drive away, and let out a long sigh of relief. 'The first big task completed for the day,' he mumbled to himself and headed home.
The house was a disastrous mess. Luckily, the maid came in and helped Ryan clean up. He quickly got ready for work and left home by 9:30. Ryan was an architect by profession and usually worked from home, making it easy for him to handle the house and his daughter. Now and then, Ryan's mother would drop by and attend to Ela after school if he had a meeting or had to step out of the house.
On the way to this meeting, Ryan called his mother to remind her that she had to come by and keep an eye on Ela.
'Yes, I remember,' his mother said. 'I have my set of house keys, don't worry.'
'Great, Mom! Thanks!' he replied.
'Now, stop worrying your little head and crack the deal,' Mom replied.
'I will, Mom,' he said and disconnected the call. He was bubbling with hope and was sure that he would get this new client.
Ela's Dadi was a kind woman in her late sixties. She was active for her age and handled everything without any hiccups. After an hour's drive, Dadi reached her son's home and let herself in. She quickly organised some lunch as she knew her granddaughter would be famished after her day at school.
Shortly after Ela rang the doorbell, Dadi welcomed her home with a tight hug and smothered her with kisses.
'Dadi!' Ela said excitedly, hugging her grandmother close. 'When did you get here? Has Dad gone for a meeting?'
'Yes! I wish your father would go for more meetings, you know,' Dadi chucked. 'Go freshen up. Lunch is ready. I've cooked you your favourite.'
'Kadi Chawal?' Ela asked.
Dadi nodded with a smile.
'Oh, goodie!' Ela went quickly to get changed.
'Do you need any help finding your clothes,' Dadi called out.
'No, Dadi.' she called out. 'I'll be out in a minute.'
When Ryan returned home in the evening, he looked exhausted. He placed some shopping bags on the table and searched for Ela and Dadi. He found them sitting on the balcony playing a game of Ludo.
'DAD! You're home!' Ela's eyes lit up. 'How was your meeting?'
'It went better than expected,' he smiled and kissed Ela on the forehead.
'What time do you have to go?' Ryan asked Mom as he held her hand and sat next to her.
'I'll be leaving in an hour,' Mom replied. 'Your father will be expecting me.'
'You could have brought Dad along, and then we could have eaten dinner together,' Ryan suggested.
'Maybe next time,' Mom replied. 'Do you need any help with dinner?'
'No, Dadi, I help Dad cook dinner,' Ela smiled.
'Yes, she does. And she's such a big help,' Ryan added. 'Have you finished your homework?'
'Not yet,' she replied.
'Finish your homework after Dadi goes. Till then, you both finish your game of Ludo, and I'll unpack the groceries.
'You went grocery shopping without me?' Ela said.
'That's alright. We will go together next week,' Ryan said.
An hour later, Ryan's mother had to leave. Both father and daughter prepared dinner and continued to read the novel Heidi, before he tucked her to bed.
'Dad,' Ela asked. 'Can you tell me one of mom's stories before I sleep?'
'Ryan smiled. 'Of course! Now, let's see, how about I tell you the story of how I met your mother?'
'No, I've heard that one like a zillion times,' Ela said.
'Really?' Ryan frowned.
'Yes, Dad! she said. I can even tell the entire story. It all started when you were in your second year of college and a new family moved into the neighbourhood. That's when you first saw Mom. And then…'
'Ok...Ok! How about I tell you the story of how your mother travelled abroad for the first time? Alone!'
'Yes...I haven't heard that one before,' Ela said excitedly.
'So, it all started when your mother and I became good friends. We had an instant attraction with each other, and we enjoyed our time spent together every evening. We used to go out for ice cream or eat Aloo Tikki in the market. One day your mother told me that she was going to Australia to meet her elder brother. I was happy she was going but sad at the same time as I knew I would miss her tremendously. So, your mother packed her bags and was off on a flight to Australia. She was only twenty years old, and it was the first time she was travelling alone. She was so excited, and I was impressed with her confidence. It was like she was ready to face the world without any fear or worry in her eyes.
'Then?' Ela asked curiously.
'Well, that was when I realised I couldn't live without your mother. It was tough for me to kill time. I became restless and impatient, waiting for her to return. Every evening I would stroll by her house until one evening I saw her. She was just arriving from the airport and got out of an Ambassador Taxi with her suitcase. I rushed to her and hugged her tightly. Your grandparents walked out of the house and were quite surprised to see their daughter in my arms,' Ryan laughed.
'Then what happened?' she asked.
Well, your mother told me she missed me too. That's when I said to her, let's get married!'
'And then you got married?' Ela interrupted.
'No, it wasn't that easy. It's not like you see in the movies, you know. Your Nanaji waited for me to finish college and to get a job. He was very possessive of his only daughter. Well, I can't blame him. So am I,' Ryan smiled fondly at his daughter's upturned face.
'And then you guys got married?' she asked.
'No… we waited five years to be married. But every single evening, your mother and I would meet even if it were only for a few minutes.' Ryan said, feeling nostalgic for the love of his life.
'Now get some sleep. It's a school day tomorrow. Have you packed your bag?' Ryan asked.
'Yes, Dad! My bag is packed. Homework is done. You have to iron my uniform since you say I'm not allowed to use the iron,' Ela replied.
'Ok. I'll do that right away. Good night Ela, I love you.'
'Good night Dad,' Ela said, kissing her father's cheek. 'I love you too.'
'Oh! I almost forgot to ask you,' Ryan asked and sat back down next to Ela. 'Which was the best part of your day?'
'Seeing Dadi,' she smiled. 'And spending time with her.'
Ryan smiled back and pinched her cheek.
The following day was a regular school day. After seeing Ela off on the bus, Ryan started working on his next project. He managed to welcome his daughter home with a hot meal. Ela seemed to be quiet, feeling low. A boy bullied her on the school bus ride home. He had teased her because of her curls and had said some mean things to her.
Ela hardly ate her food and began to cry. 'I wish I had stood up for myself, Dad, but I didn't. I'm sure Mom would have.'
Ryan hugged his daughter lovingly and said, 'You're lovely just the way you are. I’m here for you.' wiping her tears. Everything is going to be alright. Now let me see that beautiful smile of yours.'
The following day was a Saturday, a day off from school. Ryan decided to take Ela bowling that evening. The twosome enjoyed their evening together and grabbed a bite to eat before heading home.
'Dad...' Ela said after they finished reading a chapter of Heidi.
'Yes, Ela,' he replied.
'Why don't you get a girlfriend?'
'Girlfriend?' Ryan said, sounding a bit surprised.
'Yes, those ladies at the bowling alley were talking about you. And they seemed alright,' Ela said.
'I don't need a girlfriend. I'm quite happy, Ela, with the way things are going.'
'But you're a combination of tall, sweet and rugged,' she said. 'I'm sure Mom would want you to have a girlfriend. It's already been ten years since she's been gone.'
'Ela, you don't need to worry about these things. You are my world, and I don't want anything to come between you and me.'
'But Dad,' Ela said.
'No buts Ela,' Ryan replied. 'Now stop thinking so much and get some sleep.'
The following school day, Ela returned home with a proud smile. She had stood up for herself and had ended up punching the bully in the face on the ride back home.
'Don't mess with me,' she had said as the bully's nose had started to bleed. 'I think I punched him too hard,' she explained to her father.
'We'll just have to wait and watch now, won't we,' he replied. An hour later, Ryan received a phone call from Ela's class teacher, Mrs Sayam, requesting him to come by tomorrow morning.
Soon enough, Ryan found himself seated in the waiting room with Ela by his side. 'Is that him?' Ryan asked Ela.
'Yes, that's Aarav, the bully.' Ela whispered.
'The same boy you punched in the face?'
Ela nodded, blinking her big brown eyes.
Ryan greeted Aarav and his father, Prateek, who Mrs Sayam had also called. They seated themselves opposite one another. The silence in the room was deafening. Shortly, Mrs Sayam called them in to discuss the matter. After the meeting, Aarav apologised to Ela.
'That's ok... I'm sorry I punched you in the face,' she said.
'Call it even?' Aarav asked.
'Yeah, I guess so,' she nodded.
It was not long before Aarav and Ela became friends and started to enjoy each other's company. One Saturday evening, Ela and her father went bowling and happened to bump into Prateek and Aarav. Both the kids were delighted to see one another and decided to play a bowling game together. Ryan and Prateek shook hands and started to talk about their professional lives. Prateek was a writer, a single dad as well.
'How do you manage everything single-handedly?' Prateek asked. 'I at least have my mom at home to help me out.'
'Well, to be honest. It can get overwhelming at times. There are so many things that need to get done in such a short period. But Ela is a great help.' Ryan smiled.
'Ela is one strong girl. Hell, I never expected my boy to get punched in the face by a girl.'
Ryan started laughing. 'Well, she is tough. She's a lot like her Mom. A fighter.'
'How many years has it been since your wife passed away?' Prateek asked. 'I hope you don't mind me asking.'
'No, no, that's not a problem,' Ryan said. 'My wife passed away after the birth of our child. I have brought Ela up on my own. I remember my mother telling me. 'How are you going to manage it all on your own?' My mother couldn't come and help as her health was compromised at that time. But somehow, we made it this far. I remember the first few months. The bottle-feeding every two hours, the diapers but also Ela's first steps, her first beautiful smile for me,' Ryan smiled as he watched his fierce, beautiful girl playing a game of bowling with her new best friend and felt proud.
‘Time flies,’ Prateek added. 'You should get an award for being the best dad of the year, brother. I'm still dependent on my mother for so many things but look at you. There is no way I would be able to do what you've done.'
'I've already got my reward, Ryan chuckled. 'Ela says it all with her smile.'