He asked unthinkingly, then bit his tongue.
"On the fifth of November. She would have been a full five then."
"She had asked me to give her a huge doll's house she had seen in the shop, with lights and doors. I was thinking then that it was far too expensive. Now, I would gladly sell our real house to get it for her, if it made her happy."
Despite his great effort at self-control, his voice choked. He turned his head to the window to conceal his unmanageable unmanly tears. He pretended to be looking out at the garden.
He thought he saw somebody coming down the road, outside their compound wall. Who could that be, he wondered, coming unexpected to their house, as it seemed?
The bell rang.
It couldn't be the postman, it's a Sunday.
The gate was always merely bolted, not locked, during the day. Next moment steps could be heard approaching. Roohi sitting with her back to the door looked over her shoulder. Imtiaz went towards the door to see who his visitor could be. He opened the door.
Munnie flew inside and threw herself on her mother, sobbing, shrieking, hugging her so as never to let her go.
Imtiaz picked up his child and kissed her frantically and wildly before the dream should fade. No, it couldn't be – how could it?
Here she was – she, it seemed, really was!
What could it mean?
"Roohi! Roohi!" he shouted, "Roohi, look! Our Minnie has come back!"
"Don't play such cruel jokes on me," screamed Roohi, recovering a few moments later. "Don't be so cruel," she begged. "My Minnie is gone for ever! She can never come back to us!"
"But it is Minnie! It really and truly is our Minnie!" Imtiaz himself however could not believe his eyes, his hands, and was fondling the little sweet face, caressing the sturdy childish arms and legs to make himself believe the vision was something real.
Roohi caught up the child and held her so tight she almost choked her. She could not let the vision disappear, and again leave her desolate. Minnie clung to her, so as never to let her leave, as she had done that nightmare day.
"Have you come back to us from the other world, my little, little darling? Did God take pity on us, and did He send you back? Oh, I am talking all nonsense. This is another of my recurring dreams. No one returns from the dead. But let me dream on, don't wake me."
Then Imtiaz remembered the turbaned Sikh standing quietly with a pleased smile on his face, though at the same time his eyes were so wet, he kept wiping them with a large dark green checked handkerchief.
"This could have been me. This could have been my darling Sohini bringing back happiness to our home. But still I am happy in the happiness of these young parents. Life has returned to their home – as it never will to mine."
"Where did you find her, Sardari? Who has sent her with you?"
"Nobody sent me. I have brought her myself. In the darkness, after the accident, I mistook her for my own little daughter, and took her home. My little Sohini – you remember her, Bahenji? my little Sohini," he burst into tears. "I was tempted into keeping your little child to take the place of mine, it would have eased our pain. But that would have been a sin. A child should be with its own father and mother. So I brought her."
"From my own little town, some fifty miles from Delhi, Bhaiji.
They looked with astonishment at the man who had done all this for them.
Then Roohi went up to him and drawing up his large rough hands she kissed them fervently, again and again. She wanted to throw herself on the floor to kiss his feet, but he stepped back hastily, and holding her hand Imtiaz helped her get up.
Imtiaz said, "There is nothing, nothing we can ever do to repay your kindness. You sacrificed your own chance of happiness to give us back ours. We will be your slaves for the whole of our lives."
Mahindar Singh, who, while watching the dreamlike reunion, could not help his mind imagining what it would have been for him if his own little beloved child had come back to this world, now said with great shyness, "No, no, someone might have done the same for me. It is nothing."
"What can we say to you?" Imtiaz said, groping for words. "What you did was something perhaps no one in your place would have done. It would have been easy for you to have kept our child. We would never have known. And you brought her all the way from one country to another. Sardar Sahib, I pray, I pray, you may get back your little girl."
"I know that nothing, nobody can take the place of a lost child," he continued when he saw the visitor hiding his eyes with his arm, offering words of comfort which he himself had found empty when Minnie was missing, "but we will pray to God to give you another baby to make you forget the agony of the dead one."
"Unfortunately, as I had told Bahenji, my wife passed away when my little daughter was born. She was just nineteen. She was so loving and caring, I swore when she was dying I would never marry again. So I have been both father and mother to my dear departed Sohini."
He was now unable to stop the streaming tears.
"You can be a second father to Munnie. Stay with us. Our house is your house. Look upon her as your own real daughter."
"Nothing would have made me happier. But I have to take care of my aged mother, and my younger sister. But there is one promise I would like to get from you. As you have so kindly said, I will try to think of Mohini as my little Sohini come back to life. I request that you will not ever forget to invite me on her birthdays and other special occasions. Let me look on her as my own little daughter. And when one day she gets married, you must let me be her second father, and let me help make the arrangements, and assist in providing her dowry."
"Her birthday is not far. Stay here till then."
"No, I shall, if the Great One permits, come back. Tell me, what present would my little Mohini like me to bring for her?"
The party was over, the guests were going home. The carpet was littered with scraps of wrapping paper torn off impatiently by Minnie to get at the exciting presents inside.
Some of the multi-coloured bulbs had gone out, probably as a result of a fuse caused by some overloaded electricity circuit
A broken paper chain trailed across the floor. Empty bowls and glasses littered the room.
He had no excuse to stay longer. He took his leave.
The whole evening he had tried to make himself believe this was his own little girl's party, that this was his own little child in the sweet pink pleated frock.
But it hadn't been the same. His own little Sohini would have been seated in his lap most of the evening. When she got down, she would have kept her little warm hand in his, not like Mohini who did not even care to come near.
Her hair did not smell like Sohini's, which her grandmother used to wash regularly with some soaked sweet-smelling berries. Mohini's hair was curly and light in colour. Sohini had had strong beautiful straight dark hair. She had those deer-like sweet dark eyes. Her own smell had been different, fresh and childish.
The little birthday girl was not his.
Sohini would never celebrate her next birthday.
He sat down silently on one of the cane chairs in his hosts' unlighted verandah.
The future stretched empty, desert-like, in front of him. His mother was old and weak, she would pass away after some years. His sister would get married and leave for her own home.
What was left for him?
There had been times when he had already started dreaming of his little Sohini as a beautiful bride. His former amused chuckle at that vision turned now into a soul-wrenching sob as he remembered how he had dreamt of playing with her children, of hearing little voices calling him grandfather.
Where was she now?
He covered his face with his large hands as his body shook with sobs that came choking out of his tired body.
"Oh, Sohini, my darling, darling little Sohini, are fishes nibbling at your tiny tender body?"