IF.

When my wife announced her second pregnancy, I had just one prayer in mind: that the little one would be a girl. I mean, imagine the kind of havoc two Nikhils could cause in the house. We'd probably lose all our hair (and house) in the process. If we just had someone gentle and calm by nature, our family would be complete. Totally.

Of course, everything went as per God's wish (but was it mine?).

Not that He didn't give us what we asked for. Our Neetu was all that, and more. She was always a silent child, reading books and writing stories when she wasn't doing anything else. She was patient, she was kind, she was careful, she was perfect.

Except for one thing.

"This can't be a physiological problem," Dr Jose said, gravelly, "One look at her X-rays can tell you that."

Ten, I said to myself, mentally counting the number of physiotherapists we must have visited to discuss my daughter's malady, ten.

"But what other reason can there be, Doctor?" Reba wailed, her hands weaving theatrical hieroglyphs in the air, "Why else would my girl look like she's had club feet?"

I stole a glance at my daughter while this exchange was going on. I envied the kind of nonchalance Neetu could express at the moment, considering the problem was hers. She was in a world of her own – the only invitees in it being herself and the fancy page-holder on the table. Her feet hovered over the ground like a pair of flies facing each other, swinging madly to avoid collision.

"Maybe she learnt it somewhere," he said, shrugging, "Kids usually like copying adults."

"But which bloody idiot would walk that way?" Reba's voice itself was enough to raise steam from the walls, "Who the hell could teach her that?"

The doctor sighed, resigned as he probably was to desperate women who swore like troopers in his clean little office. "That, Ma'am, is a question best suited for your daughter."

Poor Neetu. She walked everyday – feet set inwards – bearing the bruises of bullies she couldn't escape from, seeing the mocking laughter from school corridors, hearing the whispers of parents who pointed to her but talked to their children. But she trudged on, her stubborn face screwed up in concentration, her vision away from prying eyes, her head held high – as if this was the right way to walk.

"Varun!" Reba exclaimed, waving a batch of papers to my face, "Stop daydreaming and listen to this!"

Neetu may not be a child prodigy when it comes to writing, but she has enough talent to go beyond her age, given time and practice. This was the only way we could see what ideas were buzzing within that fertile head of hers, and our afternoons were spent reading her pieces while she was away. At the moment, however, Neetu's writing skills were amongst one of the last things on my mind.

Neetu could never learn that kind of thing on her own. She'd started out by walking properly, anyway. Somebody must have taught her to walk that way…but who

"God, she's written a whole bleeding essay about you…gosh look at this – my daddy is very nice to look at. He's got chocolaty-brown skin and black hair and gold and silver. He looks like a king – really, I wish I had your kind of composure, it must take a lot to not blush!"

Neetu was the baby of the family, the dream everyone had wished would come true. She gave my son the experience of loving a tiny thing. But even he started asking me why his sister was walking funny.

Suddenly I was glad for my wife's rather colourful vocabulary.

If we could just take the idiot who did this to her and ram him over his sorry backside! If we could drag him here and let her stomp her feet all over him. If I could go and kick him myself! If –

"Try and remember this one, Varun: my daddy helps me and mummy and Niki in everything. One day when I was scared he helped me walk down the stairs so now I'm not scared of walking badly anymore, because my daddy knows everything…wait – I think I remember this! Didn't you tell me something about getting her to walk down the stairs?"

Oh yes. That was a feat I never ceased to be proud of.

Reba chuckled, "Hey, but you never got around to telling me how you did it."

I sighed, knowing how much she loved to hear these things, over and over and over again. "You know how small the staircase is – that's partly why she never wanted to climb them in the first place. I had to slide my foot a little to give her feet enough space to make her feel safe, to walk. She never shivered in front of the stairs after that." I smiled, remembering, "It seems like just yesterday when she was just a three-year-old, wobbling on her feet."

She grinned. "No wonder she thinks the world of you, you've been her hero since the day she was born – just let's read the last line, and we'll put this all back before she arrives…my daddy is the sweetest, nicest, bestest daddy in the world! He can never be wrong!"

I couldn't help chuckling at that. Amen to that, Neetu, I whispered to myself, Amen.

We had made our decision by the next evening, after weighing the pros and cons. The only way we could get a conclusive answer on this issue would be to ask Neetu ourselves. Whoever it was, he or she would have a great deal of influence, and would probably even teach her to revert back to walking normally. That would be after the square kick in the arse, of course.

Neetu was sitting in front of our dining table, writing yet another story. The dips in her elbows winked mischievously as she continued writing, challenging us to discover who the culprit was. Her feet wandered this way and that under the table, facing each other like old friends or sworn enemies, depending which way you looked at it. As we took a step nearer, she looked up at us and smiled.

"Hello, Neetu."

The smile disappeared, replaced as it was by a puzzled look.

"Daddy, you said that five minutes ago."

I sighed and stole a glance at my exasperated wife before attempting to continue. This was going to be very hard.

"Sweetie, can you look at your feet for a second?"

She did. And smiled proudly. "Yes, Daddy."

"You shouldn't walk like that, Neetu," Reba continued, allowing me to talk next: "It's wrong."

Neetu's chin suddenly became the most prominent part of her face.

"It isn't, Daddy. It's not wrong."

I gulped, knowing the name would be revealed, any moment…"And why not?"

Neetu brightened, as if she'd been waiting all her life for that question to crop up. You could hardly see the child's eyes, for the smile she was giving. It didn't prepare me for what I was about to hear.

"Because you could never be wrong, Daddy!"

My jaw dropped, and I could tell that behind me, Reba's had too. "What?"

She nodded emphatically. "Daddy, remember when I was threeee? You took me to a staircase to teach me how to walk?"

I looked at my daughter's inward-turned feet, than at my normally placed ones, and then at her devilishly grinning face. All the while I saw nothing more than a dark, marble staircase in my mind's eye.

I could kick myself.

A/N: Don't mind Reba, she can get a bit melodramatic at times. Flames, flowers, anything will be welcome!