Saturday, 3. September 2005 21:59
A Story By Deepak Jeswal
“Hey Ram, once again, this useless pile of newspapers!” she exclaimed exasperated, looking at the bed strewn with newspapers all over, some in neat piles, some just carelessly strewn across, and one lying open, with a portion of it cut-out, as if an important piece of news has just been taken out of the paper and kept safely somewhere for posterity. The open paper flapped in the wind of the single overhead ceiling fan.
“Why cannot you store them once you are through with them?” she demanded.
The man, in his late sixties, turned from the cupboard that was lying just adjacent to the bed; in the open drawer he was trying to find the glue stick, which he was confident, was lying there till yesterday evening, and now he could not find it. He mumbled a profanity to himself, and sat down on the edge of the bed, next to one of the piles of the newspapers, and turned slowly to the woman, who stood with her hands on the hips at the doorway, a deep frown marking her forehead.
“I never seem to find anything when I need it,” he grumbled. There was a very forlorn and broken look in his eyes, a look that conveyed that he had even failed in such a small endeavor.
Immediately, the woman softened, and walked, with the slight limp of an arthritic patient to the other edge of the bed and sat on it grimacing as the momentary sharp pain shot up “Come on, why do you worry and fret over such small things. Let it be. What will you get out of this? Who will even care for all this?”
The man nodded dumbly, and eyed the expanse of the newspapers on the bed. He was only cutting out some useful articles that he knew might help in the future, someday. “Yeah, let it be, why should I do all this?”
The aged couple sat on the two edges of the bed, with the silence of a deep understanding binding them, broken intermittently by the flapping of the open newspaper.
“Come, tea is ready,” she said. With an effort she got up from her edge; she winced as the knee pained again. With small shuffling steps, her back stooped slightly with age, she walked out of the room. It was evident that movement was becoming very difficult for her.
“Sarla, was there any phone for me?” the man asked all of a sudden behind her.
Sarla turned. “No, no phone today,” she replied. She wanted to add, “today also” but resisted. It was a ritual; just another routine her husband followed religiously. To ask her if there was any phone for him, as if he would not be able to hear the jangling of the instrument in their small apartment. And more importantly, as if there would ever be phone calls for him. With a slight shake of the head, she walked to the kitchen to bring out the two cups of tea that she had made for them.
She laid out the tea on the living room, with its open wide windows facing the park, where the children played at this hour of the evening. Before, taking his chair, the man picked up the phone to check; the dial tone was there; it was working. So it can still ring. Together, they sat sipping hot strong tea. Outside, they could hear the voices of the children, shouting, laughing, screaming, playing cricket, one asking to pass the ball, the other scrambling and running to the next wicket, and a loud war-like triumphant cry when the runner reached the wicket in time. These were happy voices, careless voices. Within the room, there was no sound except for their breathing. The fan was switched off. July was ending; the rains were just around the corner. Nay, the rains were coming, as the couple felt its vanguard, the humidity, oppressing today.
“It will rain today,” commented the man, his voice a little hoarse. Was he crying, Sarla wondered?
For days they had sat like this, every evening, watching the children play in the park, enjoying their voices, their noise and perhaps remembering that once these voices had echoed within the walls of their house also. But that was quite long ago. Now, Sarla and Om Prakash were alone; one of the many alone aged couples of this huge metropolitan city.
The living room, a small ten by ten room, was filled with a dining table, and a small divan on the side, and faced the two bedrooms of the flat, separated by an oblong kitchen. They had now almost locked one of the bedrooms that was once occupied by their two sons, Varun and Tarun. The second one was the so-called master bedroom, slightly bigger than the other, and was occupied by only three pieces of furniture- the huge six by six double bed, the chest of drawers next to it, and one large almirahs.
Turning back his gaze from the window, he looked at his wife. She was still graceful, even with those wrinkles that seemed to be more marked now, and the eyes narrowed with age, and perhaps, crying also. She blinked them in rapidly, as if this would assuage the pain, which was more in her heart and less in the eyes. There was an elegant plumpness about her, and the hair was still long, but now silvery gray.
“I am not hungry,” he said. “Let’s skip dinner tonight.”
“No, no” she said aghast. “You did not have dinner last night also. You must eat otherwise you will fall sick. I will cook you two thin chapattis, we shall have it with yesterday’s daal only”
“I am really not hungry”
She sighed; she knew he was avoiding dinner only to save her from the trouble of making one. It was another everyday dialogue eventually leading to nothing. It passed time.
“That stain over there,” he pointed to the place where the verandah met the kitchen door. “Doesn’t it go?”
“Tried cleaning, it doesn’t.”
“Doesn’t look nice, what if someone comes?”
“Let it be!” she said, her panacea to every problem. Who would come here in any case? There was one last week, and what a brouhaha it created. But that’s about it. Let it be!
Together, they got up. She went to the kitchen to wash off the cups; he went to the room, pausing shortly at the photograph hanging on the wall next to the refrigerator. It was a large black-and-white photograph of the two of them, in their younger days, their hair still black, there cheeks still full with all their teeth complete. He shook his head in pity and walked back to the room, his back stooped, his hands in his pocket. Old age had been bad, very bad.
One by one, both their sons had left their little nest. Varun got a job in Pune, he did not ever care to return. He married a Maharashtrian girl there, informed his parents, and came once to meet them. But after that, there was not much communication. He found writing letters boring, and email was alien concept to them. He was meticulous in calling every weekend earlier, in which the conversation followed a set pattern: how are you? How is Savita? Do come over, papa, he would invite, without his tone conveying any sort of invitation. Yes, beta, we would. But the heat is so much, we cannot travel; or, the rains are bad for your mummy’s arithritis; or, it’s so cold, we will come when summer sets in. Thus, they would reply with each changing season. And soon enough, the weekly calls became fortnightly, then monthly, and eventually once in three months.
Tarun, on the other hand, left for US to complete his PhD. He did not marry, had no girlfriends, and only rued the fact that he could have stayed back if only he had got admission in some decent university in their city. He called, very regularly and was very concerned about his parents being alone. But, unfortunately, could not afford the ticket for both of them. Neither could they, keeping in view that they just about survived on their meager pension from Om Prakash’s government job. And neither of them was inclined to travel alone to so far off.
So, Om Prakash, Retired Government Servant, passed his time, with his wife, Sarla- providing succor to each other in their twilight years. They would fight sometimes, on some odds and ends- she would be irritated by his habit of strewing newspapers all the place, and not keeping the room tidy, or by placing his dentures on the bathroom sink, the sight of which made her feel nauseous. He would tire of her grumbling and regrets- if Tarun and Varun had chosen to do their own thing, so let it be, no? But, she would go on, raking up the past, living in the past, reliving the past every moment. Now, she had also gone into the mode, where she would talk to herself. Many a morning, he would wake up early and watch her sitting in front of the makeshift temple in the kitchen, having very audible conversations with herself complete, her hands gesticulating animatedly as she made her point to the imaginary person. These conversations were usually only with Varun. The prayer book would just lie open in her lap, and oblivious to the surroundings around her, she would have a deep satisfying talk, in which she always won, and which, she could never have said, if Varun ever walked up to her. She never spoke to him about this, because, he never entertained such talks. But Om Prakash felt sorry for her. He felt her pain, and wanted every time she went into the mode, to hold her, and to soothe her. But not given in to such brash display of emotions, he just held back, and on those days, he would just be extra sweet to her, and help her about in the kitchen, or in the dusting of the room.
Every evening, till dinnertime, she would watch a spew of boring never-ending woe-filled soap operas on the television, while he would lie down in his bed, switch off the light and listen to some old film songs on the dilapidated music system, whose rewind button did not work, and sound from one of the speakers was cracked. But he did not care, because actually he was not listening to the songs. He also thought- and unlike, his wife, silently- about the past, and whether he could have done something so that life could have taken some other course. Despite his assurances to his wife, he could not let it be. He felt the void. He felt the loneliness. He felt the boring minutes as they passed by every day; he felt stupid doing all those meaningless activities, and the futile sense of importance he gave them.
Yet, the two of them were together, married for the past fifty years. And because they were together in a state in which they had no goal, no future, nothing to look forward to, and time was a punishment that they were serving in this lifetime, hence, after every fight, or grumble, or complaint, they would sulk, not talk, but eventually, come around. Who else did they have to turn to, except for each other? And each realized this with a deep sorrow, that in their septuagenarian years, they needed to humor each other. They were beyond any other companionship, having walked together a bit too far.
Om Prakash, walked into his room, and stopped by at the mirror on the steel almirahs. After seeing himself in his heyday in the photograph outside, he was aghast to see the change in himself being reflected so cruelly by the mirror. The hairline had receded, and whatever was left was grayish black. The wrinkles were prominent, and the face seemed to have elongated with the jaws dropping without the support of his natural teeth. He shook his head and sat down to pick up the newspapers lying on the bed, and to listen to his favorite songs, while Sarla, in the drawing room watched television.
After dinner, they again sat in the verandah, looking at the night outside. The park was empty now, and there was only the buzzing of the mosquitoes, apart from their breathing. The fan swirled in a slow rhythm above them. They had put it on now, the humidity was marked, and the rains would come any time. Before sitting, he had once again checked the telephone; the connection was on. And thus, they sat, watching the night, watching the minutes tick by; waiting…waiting for deliverance, waiting for their prodigal sons to return, if they would care to.
Till the time there was a loud noise at the front door…
The lock was stuck and made a loud noise while opening and broke the stillness of the night.
“I did not have the numbers of Varun Bhaiyya, and did not find it anywhere,” the girl was speaking non stop, as Tarun struggled to open the lock. “I searched for it in the diary, but could not find it, I only had your number. It was such a dreadful sight. I was alone that day…”
Finally, the lock came open. The door opened with an eerie creak, and Tarun entered his house after a gap of five years. The girl, Neeta, who stayed in the flat opposite, entered on his heels.
“Looks so clean, as if they still live here,” he commented as he entered the drawing room.
Neeta nodded vigorously. She was also surprised to see the cleanliness. For a week, the house had been locked but it was not that dusty.
He entered the verandah, and saw the deep red stain there, lightened now with the time elapsed.
“Here they were, lying…in a pool of blood. It was so horrible. I nearly puked!”
Tarun sat down near the stain, and touched it, as if by doing so he could touch his parents. Tears welled up his eyes.
“They remembered you a lot. Aunty would keep talking about you only. Varun Bhaiyya, she was not very fond of, I don’t think she remembered him ever. But you, they were always talking of. They showed me your album also.”
“How did this happen?”
“Happened last week, some bugger probably came to rob them, he killed them when they resisted perhaps. Police says that there have been many such murders of elderly couples. We wanted to wait for you to come in before cremating them. But it was impossible to keep the dead bodies.”
Tarun shook his head in disgust. The damn flights! It took him a week to get a ticket back to India.
With his eyes hazy with the tears, he looked across the verandah to the window that overlooked the park. Two chairs were there, facing the window, just the way his parents sat after dinner. His heart missed a beat…it seemed that they were still there, looking out into the night. He could see their backs, their heads, and their slouched figures sitting on the hard wooden chairs.
They were looking at Tarun lovingly. Last week they had died, but they lived beyond the realms of their material body. Together, always together, in their joys, in their pain, and in their death also, last week, caused by a miscreant.
Their wait was finally over. A loud thunderclap broke the stillness and heralded their departure. Hand in hand, the aged couple got up, as a sharp lightning from the heavens broke forth, calling them in its beautiful soft folds.
The rains came that night.
Tarun walked to the chairs, and lovingly caressed them. “I know you are here, papa and mummy. I love you”
They showered their blessing and departed with the sparkle of the rains….
A STORY BY DEEPAK JESWAL