It was 10 a.m. and Fiza was dialling the number she had jotted down the previous evening.

“Hello, is this Mr Batliwala?”

“Hello, Fiza? And you can call me DK. Everybody does.” His voice sounded friendly today, even cheerful. She wondered how long it had been since her father’s death.

“If it is convenient, I can pick you up from your home today at twelve.”

“I can meet you at your office or wherever directly – ” Fiza replied stiffly.

“No, that’s all right. I’ll be passing that way anyway. So I’ll see you downstairs. How is Noor? How did she deal with the news?”

Fiza was still uncomfortable sharing private details with this near stranger. “She’s okay. Yes, I’ll see you at twelve.”

“Okay. And please carry some ID proof, if you can. It will help to get things started. Bye, then.”

So this was about legalities. Could it be that her father had been in financial trouble, like her mother had feared? But the conversation with DK was far too pleasant for that to be the case. Inheritance was out of the question. He hadn’t even bothered to say hello in two decades. Fiza put her voter’s ID and passport in her bag and waited for noon.

A new thought entered Fiza’s mind for the first time since hearing the difficult news the previous evening: should she email Dhruv? They hadn’t spoken since he had left the previous month, and she wasn’t sure this was the best ice- breaker. The thought of Kavya, her college friend, crossed her mind, but this news was too sudden to spring on her, and completely without foreshadowing. Fiza didn’t yet have the language to deal with the situation. There was just no template for this kind of thing.

DK was promptly at her gate at twelve, waiting in his grey Hyundai Accent. He opened the front door for her and greeted her warmly – like she were the daughter of a close friend. He looked distinguished and agreeable, something in his manner suggesting compassion.

“So ... you’re studying?”

“Yes. I’m at Bombay University, doing an MA.”

“Oh. Good, good. What are you studying?”

“English literature.”

“Ah, that’s wonderful. Iqbal used to worry you would be one of those MBA types. But he hoped you’d be a book-lover. He was banking on it, almost,” he carried on familiarly.

Fiza was part bewildered and part resentful. Her father had conducted casual conversations about her, speculating about her interests while never once reaching out to her in over twenty years.

DK sensed her discomfort and changed the topic. “Is Noor well?”

“Yes, thanks. She’s a bit – ”

“I can imagine. But she’s a strong woman. And she’s raised you well.”

There it was again. Him speaking about her like he knew her. Knew what it had been like for Noor.

They were soon pulling over at an old commercial complex in Prabhadevi. Up in his wood-panelled office, DK got straight to the point.

“Fiza, this is going to come as a bit of a surprise to you – over and above the shock of Iqbal’s...”

On high alert, Fiza gave nothing away with her expressions.

“Your father was a complex man. Too much reading and thinking. He was a perfectionist. If he didn’t think he could do something well, he just gave it up and never looked back. He knew that was his biggest problem, and still...”

Fiza took a sip of the water placed before her, pretending this was a story she was hearing about strangers.

“He built a good life for himself. Even did well. But he was disturbed by – by what happened with Noor and you. He knew he had behaved...” DK looked up awkwardly, leaving the sentence trailing. “But he was also sure that he was not capable of making amends.”

“He chose not to,” Fiza said, shaking off her superficial composure.

“Yes, you’re entitled to your response. Anyway, I’m not here to fight a case for him, beta. At this point, all I’ll say is he was a great friend of mine and leave it at that.”

“You asked me to carry an ID,” Fiza said, eager to escape the oppressive situation.

“Yes. But before that, I’d like you to listen very carefully. Your father was not a rich man. But he was wise with his money. And he had put away enough to fulfil a dream. He wanted to spend his retirement running a bookshop in Bombay. He loved Bombay till the end, even though he left,” DK said in a voice he was trying hard to keep steady.

At this point, Fiza experienced a swell of emotion even greater than when she had heard about his passing. My father wanted to run a bookshop, she recited in her head. This was something she found to be immeasurably sad and sweet.

“But he was a practical man. When he was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, he began to put all his finances together and even wrote a will. He left money for his brother and some of his other relatives in Bangalore, but he also put away a sum for the bookshop he had always wanted.”

Fiza was trying to keep up. She was used to piecing together her father’s life using hard-won information gathered over years – a Frankenstein created out of scraps of her mother’s memories. Now, here was a flood of facts she wasn’t prepared for. He had lived in Bangalore. She had an uncle. Perhaps cousins. She tried not to let them settle in her brain.

“And you are the sole inheritor of that sum in his will.”

DK waited for the import of this statement to sink in, but all he got from Fiza was a silence imploring him to go on.

“Did you – should I...go over what I just said?”

“I’m sorry. Did you just say he’s left me money to set up a bookshop?” Fiza stuttered.

“Yes. You’ve got it, then,” he smiled. “Which is why I was relieved when you said you were studying literature.”

“And what if I weren’t?”

“His wishes are just a suggestion. The money is yours, beta. Do what you like.”

“This is all too much. All together,” Fiza said after an uncomfortable pause.

“I know. And I’m sorry this news had to be delivered to you in this way. But now you need to decide if you want to...”

“Set up a bookshop with the money my father has left me,” she said slowly, as if repeating a line in a foreign tongue.

“That’s right. If you like.”

Fiza lowered her face and held it in her hands. She was neither in control of the thoughts in her head, nor of the expressions on her face. And her hands had gone very cold.

Paper Moon

Excerpted with permission from Paper Moon, Rehana Munir, HarperCollins India.