Today is Mahalaya, and I wake up at 4 in the morning. Dada loves to listen to the radio program. Until last year, he used to be the one to turn on the radio. Then he would gently call my name standing by my bed, and I would open my eyes. This year it is different. Dada has been fighting with Hepatitis-C for a long time, which has gradually aggravated to Cirrhosis. He is sixty eight, and used to be a very active man even a few months ago. Now he cannot sit up straight without assistance or get out of the bed anymore. I turn off the alarm and go to his room to call him- he is already awake, staring at the ceiling fan. I switch on the Philips radio and tune it to the Kolkata channel. Then unplug his catheter and empty the liquid in the bathroom. When I come back, the chanting by Birendra Krishna Bhadra has already started.
“Do you want to drink some water?” I ask dada pulling my torso inside the mosquito net around his bed. I lean close to his face so that I can hear him. I see tears rolling down his eyes.
“This is my last Mahalaya,” he whispers.
“Please, don’t say that,” I tell him, caressing his forehead.
I untie a corner of the mosquito net and sit at the side of the bed. I love the Mahalaya program like everyone else. But I have the habit of falling asleep midway. I am fifty five now, and I have been listening to it every year for past…I don’t know, maybe fifty years, ever since we owned a radio. Ma loved it and she hummed some of the songs for the rest of the day. Some years I have had night duty on Mahalaya, but even on duty I did not miss it, as someone at the matron’s office would have a radio playing in low volume. Today I stay awake, sitting at the corner of dada’s bed. I listen to the very end of the program, where they blow the conch shells after chanting the final shlokas. Most likely, this is my last Mahalaya with dada.
I am the fourth child of my parents. Dada and chhorda are my two brothers, dada being the eldest, and chhorda just two years elder than me. Before Dada, my parents had another daughter who died in her teens long before I was born. I have a younger sister, Sabari. My father was a temperamental person, who had a small job really not enough to support our large family. His only way of being a good father was to father more children than he could support. He had a stroke and was paralyzed for the last five years of his life. After his death, we moved to a small rented house in Tollygaunge, where I now live with Dada. Chhorda got married and moved out, and then Sabari. Ma died few years later. So now just the two of us have remained.
Malati arrives late in the morning and starts doing the chores. She has been a great help over the past few months. She takes care of dada when I am not at home, cleans the house and washes the dishes. While sweeping the floor with a broom, she asks, “Didi, will you give me my puja tips? I haven’t bought any clothes for my kids yet.”
I open my purse and give her two notes of hundred rupees. She puts it in the small pouch made by the folds of her saree near her waist. “The boy has been nagging for a t-shirt with Sharukh Khan’s face, weird choices of today’s kids!” she says cheerfully and continues pushing the small heap of dirt. The floor in our rented house is a collection of tiles of different designs. It was like that when we moved in. I think the owner was a friend of the tile supplier, who had an excess of tiles of different designs at his store, and gave them away for free or almost at no cost. So the heap of dirt gradually gains more volume with every sweeping stroke of Malati, and moves from a black half circle to a beige broken triangle then to a piece of a gray rectangle until it reaches the very corner of our living room.
I leave the house a little later. I have evening duty and my shift starts at two. Although the state government and most of the corporate houses declare Mahalaya as a holiday, still the metro is crowded with puja shoppers. I luckily get a seat. In front of me a young girl, probably in college talks incessantly to a boy of her age, who listens with an apparent interest. The small boy sitting next to me seems very excited about the new clothes his mother is going to buy for him. “It’s going to be navy blue right? Or do you think jeans of lighter colors are better?” he asks gleefully, to which his mother replies “We’ll see.” Since my station does not come too soon, these faces change. Finally I get off at the Central Station. The Fortune General Nursing Home is just a few minutes’ walk, where I work as a nurse.
I am in charge of the general ward. After checking in, like every day I set off with allocating duties to the staff nurses. One of them has called in sick, so I may have to go into the ward. A couple of new files are lying on my desk, of patients admitted last night. One is the blood test results of a woman of 48, who came in with high fever and spasm and now occupying bed no: 258. The doctor attended her suspects Dengue, which the report confirms. The other file contains a CT scan report of a stroke patient- showing infarction on the right prefrontal cortex. The dot matrix letters on the label catches my eye. “Subrata Dutta 58 yrs M.” I read the label carefully one more time, then rush to cabin 354, where the subject of the report is located at present. I arrive at the room, and see a man nearing sixty lying, sound asleep. An intravenous channel has been made in his arm, ryles tube running through his nostrils. He is thinly built, with grey hairline receding far back, revealing shiny baldness. His clean shaven cheeks have shrunk inside, due to over-smoking I guess. At first glance it is easy not to recognize, but this is Subrata- indeed, there is no doubt. His file slips through my finger, and I stand by his bed- transfixed.
When I first met Subrata, I was a first year B.Sc. student of Biology in Asutosh College, and he was a final year student of B.A. Political Science. It was almost thirty five years ago, and Kolkata was a different place altogether- seething in Naxalite movements. Young students from middle class families were leaving home to join the extreme leftist uprising. Their approach was violent, and they faced brutal repression from the joint force of police and the ruling party thugs. Men in their twenties were shot and stabbed in broad day light, publicly, sometimes even in front of their parents. They were dragged out of their college classrooms, from their homes- where they might have returned after months just to spend a night with their families, they were abducted, tortured, and murdered. Houses were randomly searched for hiding rebels, young men from wealthy families were moving to other states for education and career, sometimes to other countries.
In such disruptive times, Subrata came in my life like a whirlwind. He could not be seen without a Charminar cigarette, hair always unkempt, and thick beard covering his face. There was an impeccable charm in his lack of care for any sort of orderliness. He could never be seen in the classes- was more likely to be found at the college canteen, preaching the evils of the contemporary social structure to a bunch of young students who worshipped him. His poems frequently adorned the college magazine, the walls of the union room, the benches in the canteen and the classes, almost on any surface his followers deemed worthy of his verses. He was also a member of some professional theatre group. I would often find my classmates talking about him, as if he was some kind of a celebrity. I heard that his father was a rich businessman, and their relation was strained. He was the youngest of three children, he had a brother settled in London, and a sister married off to a doctor in Kolkata. I came from a lower-middle class family. I was neither into poetry, nor in theatres, and politics was something that I was told to avoid. So Subrata remained as a mysterious object of interest in a universe of which I would never be a part of. At least that was what I thought.
Cabin 354 is on the west wing of the third floor of our hospital, where all the other single bed cabins are located. Patients from well to do families, politicians and filmstars occupy this part of the facility, the care provided here certainly matches the amount billed at the time of discharge. I can see a newspaper folded neatly on the bedside table, along with two unopened bottles of mineral water, and a glass wrapped with paper towels. None of those will be required for some time now, since the patient himself is on saline, but the housekeeping department is very particular about the small things like these here. The curtains are drawn, and the diffused light from a shaded bulb is softly illuminating the room. The green digits of the blood pressure monitor seem brighter than they usually are, and the faint humming from the air vents somehow intensifies the silence. The man lies on the soft white bed, eyes closed- a blanket pulled over him neatly. His lips have drooped in one side a little. There is little resemblance with the Subrata thatI knew, the differences are even more exaggerated by his presence in this expensive cabin.
My evening shift ends at 10. Outside the hospital, the air is thick with the strong fragrance of night jasmine. The streets are vibrant in preparation of the festival. Buildings are decorated with long strings of colorful bulbs. People are returning from shopping for the puja, they look both exhausted and exalted. Sidewalks are barricaded with bamboo fences. The skeleton of the giant pandal of College Square can be seen from the gate of the nursing home. They are making a replica of the Golden Temple of Amritsar this year. Finally the bus of route 4 comes. Metro stops running in such late hours. The bus is almost empty, and I find a corner of a ‘Ladies’ seat. Outside, the shops, the street lights, the cars and the people recede as the bus paces through the city streets. I feel the mild autumn breeze on my face. And the scenes which have not been revived for a very long time, come back to life again, blurring the roads and the lights and the crowd.
I was shy by nature. In college, I seldom spoke to men and spent time with my own group of friends, all girls. I usually returned home right after the classes, without making much attempt to socialize. But then two weeks before the annual college festival of 1971, a group of boys from the student union stopped me at the corridor.
“Nalini?” One of them asked, his face was familiar. I was surprised by this sudden encounter,
“Yes,” I replied.
“We are staging the play “Ebong Indrajit” in the festival. There is only one female role, and Pushpita was going to do it,” he continued, “But she was diagnosed with jaundice yesterday, and cannot come to college for a month.”
“So yes, only you can save our face,” another one of them added, imploring, which appeared to me as fake.
“But, why me?” I asked, I was completely taken aback by this proposal.
“Some of your friends are in the singing group- you know Sushila and Chandreyi right? They said we could ask you. We don’t have much time left,” replied the first.
“Please,” came from the group again, but I failed to notice who it was. Back in those days, men were usually shy and awkward when it came to talking to stranger women. So they came in a group.
“Who else is there in the play?” I asked, hoping to hear some familiar names, suddenly aware of my importance here.
“Subratada is playing the lead role, he is also the director. Me, Vikash and Animesh are the other three characters,” the first said again.
“I will have to think,” I said, and then walked past them without looking back.
I could not decide at first, but my friends urged that it would be fun. I was terrified about the idea of performing in public. When I was five, I took part in a children’s drama in school, and forgot my lines in the middle of the show. I was so nervous that I could not pay attention to the prompter behind the veil, and left the stage crying. That was all the experience I had in acting. But this time, when all these unknown students and my friends insisted me to take the role, I could not ignore the sudden abundance of attention ushered on me. And then there was Subrata, the opportunity to be in his vicinity, to interact with him directly. It felt like a forbidden path- which lures the traveler to her own doom. I could not refuse, and agreed to take the part.
At the time of the rehearsals, I could not even complete the sentences properly in front of Subrata. But he helped me to be at ease, showed me the expressions fit for the dialogues. I wondered how he could master so much energy in every word he uttered. How did that powerful voice originate from his otherwise thinly built body, was beyond my understanding. He was taller than me by a few inches. His eyes were bright and intense. While practicing against him, I felt his gaze could read right through my mind. Like I was completely transparent, naked- and there was no point to hide anything from him.
He would often stay longer to help me with my part, even after everyone else had left. We spent time at the canteen together, drinking tea after the classes. He did most of the talking, and I just listened. My knowledge about the society, about history, about socialism, about the democratic policies and the fallacies of the same were minimal- almost nonexistent. “As an educated citizen of the society, you should read the Communist Manifesto” he once said. We were usually surrounded by his other friends, or better to say followers, and would listen to his explanations of how the government was failing to cater to the needs of the mass. His diction, his rage, along with the cigarette smoke coming from different directions kept me mesmerized.
On the day of the show, I felt numb with panic. About an hour before the start of the play, I was shivering uncontrollably, and could not remember a single line from my part.
“Subratada, I can’t do this.” I told him, before going to the make-up room.
“Don’t worry, we are all nervous. It’s just a play.”
“I can’t do this. I want to go home,” I said, tears about to roll out of my eyes. Subrata waited for a moment, and then grabbed my arm, “Come with me,” he said.
He almost dragged me to a deserted corner, and then stopped. He held me firmly by my arms, looking right into my eyes. “You can do this Nalini. I will be there with you,” he said. Then slowly drew me closer and kissed.
“ITI, Tollygaunge ITI, next stop is Wireless” the voice of the bus conductor brings me back to present. I take my bag and approach the door, since my stop comes next.
I help dada take a bath once or twice a week. It is getting more difficult though, since he cannot move at all. Malati and I put his arms around our shoulders, and almost drag him to the bathroom. I set a chair in there, and make him sit on it. I pour lukewarm water on him, from a large bucket, using a mug. ‘Is it too cold?” I ask, while scrubbing his bare skin. He just nods to say it is all right. He has become so much thinner over the last couple of months- I can count his ribs. His arms are just bones covered by skin, his stomach bulging grotesquely. In the beginning he would protest my attempts to wash his private parts, but now he remains silent. I dry him with a towel and put fresh clothes on him, then I comb his hair gently. He looks a little less closer to dying. He has always kept beard, so I do not shave him. I just straighten his facial hair with my palms, and then hold a mirror in front of his face. “See you are looking better,” I tell him, hoping to make him smile. He does not.
Next morning, during the visiting hours, a man comes to see Subrata, with a woman, and a little boy. They stand by the bed and the man tries to speak to Subrata. Subrata makes an effort to say something, but his speech is still slurry, he does not seem to be registering much. The man does not give up and continues softly,
“Baba, can you recognize us? I am Binoy, this is Kajari, and here’s your grandson Rana.”
But Subrata looks at them blankly, void of any expression.
“Are you in pain Baba? You’ll be all right.”
Binoy assures himself more than he does Subrata. I come by the bed and start pretending to check the I.V. dripper. The man clears his throat then asks politely,
“He does not seem to recognize us. Will he be okay?”
“He is stable now. It may take some time to recognize everyone. The doctor would be able to tell you better,” I try to sound as reassuring as I can. “Thank you.”
I cannot stand there for long- so I come out of the cabin. I was half expecting to see a woman of my age, Subrata’s wife, but she is not here. Is she dead already? Is she too feeble to come and see her husband at the hospital? Perhaps they are separated and she does not know, or care? I feel the curiosity burning inside me. The son is here, is he the only one, or does he have siblings? Is there a daughter who would come crying with her husband and kids tomorrow, since she lives in Delhi or Mumbai or maybe in a different country? I have not been curious about anything for a very long time, especially about other people’s families. I almost forgot the feeling, it is so unnerving.
Piku and Rimi come to see dada sometimes. Piku is the younger of the two sons of chhorda, and Rimi is the only daughter of Sabari. Both of them are going to Jadavpur University, Piku studies engineering, and Rimi is pursuing Comparative Literature. Dada loves them like his own children. Rimi never gets tired of talking- she always has stories to tell about her friends, her professors, her mother or the kid next door – whereas Piku prefers to stay quiet. Occasionally he would comment or ask a question, but sometimes I think he doesn’t even listen. Dada asks them to come and sit by the bed. Then he holds Piku’s hand. “My child, how much you have grown up. It feels like just yesterday when you were born,” says dada. Rimi keeps chirping about the rounds of shopping she has done, with friends and with her mother.
“How many clothes have you bought for this puja?” she asks Piku. “One jeans, and two t-shirts,” Piku replies.
“From where?” “Gariahat Pantaloons.”
“Nalini…, can you come here?” dada calls me.
I go to his bedside and he gestures me to bring my ear near his mouth. He asks me to open his box of cash and give away Rs. 500 each to Piku and Rimi. I do as he says, and both of them protest. “This is absolutely unnecessary,” Rimi yells. “We are grown up now, please don’t do that,” says Piku.
“Buy something for the puja,” says dada with a feeble smile, still holding Piku’s arm, “Buy a nice panjabi maybe.” They don’t argue anymore and thank him.
Subrata was wearing a panjabi made of khaddar the day we went out during the puja of 1971. Of the four days of puja, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dashami, it was on the most auspicious, the Ashtami we met in front of our college in the morning. We took a taxi and went to North Calcutta. We roamed the streets on foot, visited as many pandals as we could. The arrangements were much less extravagant compared to that of today. Starting from College Street, to Shyambazar, to the alleys of Kumartuli and the ghats of Bagbazar, we went around on foot, sometimes stopping to have tea from the road-side tea-stalls.
“I wish we could walk around the entire city, what do you say?” he asked. My feet were hurting already, so I said , “I won’t mind, but pretty soon you’d have to take me on your shoulders.” And we both laughed. I was feeling blessed, of course because I was with Subrata, but that was not all. Before taking the role in that play, before knowing Subrata, I was not really alive. I could not tell the difference between one day from the other. Poverty, stinginess and tolerating one another day and night in that small two roomed house were the only elements of my existence. The feeling of excitement was unknown to me for the first twenty years of my life. But with Subrata, I had something to look forward to, every day. Like a possibility of change, a glimpse of hope that misery was not the only way of being.
We reached Esplanade in late afternoon, and had lunch at Anadi’s with their famous Mughlai parathas. “I want to take you to a place,” he said to me. “Princep Ghat,” he told the driver as we took another taxi. I came from a family where riding a taxi and going to restaurants were considered unattainable luxuries. Subrata’s family was well-off, so those were nothing new to him. I felt like being lifted to a higher rung of the society. A mild sense of vanity was creeping into my conscious self. My joy was inexplicable.
I cannot remember the last time I was this restless, I cannot keep my thoughts in control. While coming to work, while cooking at home, while feeding dada or making tea in the morning, I am thinking about Subrata, all the time. Will he recognize me now, becoming suddenly emotional and making a scene? That won’t be good for him, fresh out of a stroke. Will he just pretend that I am a stranger even if he recognizes me? Maybe he would be embarrassed to reveal our past relationship to his family. That is unlikely though, the Subrata that I knew was brave and outspoken. But time changes everything; I won’t be surprised if he too learned to conform to the norms of the society. His youthful zeal to change the world probably died a bourgeois death, and he settled like everyone else, with a job and a family. I guess he did not even protest when his father asked for a hefty dowry from his in-laws at the time of his marriage. The books he used to quote from very often might have remained untouched for a long time, with all their contents forgotten. Shouldn’t he be somewhere else, helping the wretched, the needy, shouldn’t he be already dead by the bullets of the wealthy oppressors, rather than lying here in the comfort of the temperature controlled luxury cabin? I wonder what happened, why did he change? How did he change?
I look at him – standing by the door. Then slowly I walk to his bed. Hearing my footsteps he turns, and stares at me blankly. I wait, until he says something or makes a gesture. Is this the moment? But he hardly can recognize his son, it is unlikely a face that he last saw thirty five years ago would ring a bell. But I still wait, and he says something which I don’t understand at first. I move closer and he whispers, “W-Water.”
He is already hydrated through the ryles tube, I understand that just his throat is dry. So I unseal one of the unopened bottles on his bedside table, pour a little water in a spoon. I spill a few drops, then support the back of his head as I hold the spoon to his lips. He sips the water slowly. I give him three four spoonful more.
“Do you want more?” I ask him, trying to make him speak a little.
He does not reply and closes his eyes.
“How are you feeling?” I ask again, but he remains silent. I wipe his lips with a napkin. I deliberately let my fingers touch his face- no I don’t feel anywhere nearly sensual. Just a mild curiosity about how would it be like to touch his face. I ponder on whether I should keep the napkin, as a souvenir, something that has touched his moist lips other than my own. But then I just fold it and throw it into the bedside bin. Then I leave, closing the door gently behind me.
Coincidentally, I got the Ashtami off this year. Rimi and Sabari plan to go on a pandal hopping trip on that day. One of Rimi’s friends and her mother will join them, and they urge me to come as well. “You never go anywhere,” Sabari says, as she comes to see dada before puja. “Ask Malati to stay with dada for a few hours, pay her some extra, come on- we are renting a car,” she suggests. But Malati has already asked for the Ashtami off, since I will not be on duty. “I can’t,” I tell Sabari, explaining the situation. I am not really that excited about the puja, I don’t regret for not going out. People come to our house to see dada, relatives and neighbors, and we have a good time. As the puja begins, the entire population of the city come down on street. There are lights and music and balloons and food stalls everywhere, as if the city transforms to a fairground. There is a pandal very close to our house, and we can hear the sound of the dhaks at the time of the arati. Little boys and girls wearing brand new clothes, run around with toy guns near the pandal. Rimi hates the noise made by those toy guns, the cracking of the ‘caps’. When Piku and his elder brother were small, they played with those too, shooting at each other. I remember dada buying them new guns every year. Teen aged girls hang out in groups, wearing sarees, which they are not used to at all, so very cautious about their gracefulness. Boys of the same age also hang around in groups, with their usual pretentious carefree and grownup facades. For the few days of puja, the neighborhood near my hospital gets really crowded, since some of the famous pujas of the city are in that area. But because of the Metro, I do not get stuck in the traffic.
Subrata and I were sitting on the steps of Princep Ghat, quietly, holding hands. We saw the setting sun, scattering wild redness as if with a paintbrush on the backdrop of a darkening sky- creating orange ripples in the water. The lights came on the other side. Somewhere far away, a song was being played in loud speakers, we could only hear the faded tune. There were other couples too, sitting on the steps, or sailing on boats in the river. I was overwhelmed, and could barely hold my tears. I thought I did not deserve to be so happy- such an evening was made for someone else, someone beautiful and rich, who could be at ease with herself and others. And by a grand cosmic error, I had been given what was rightfully hers. It was not supposed to last, a part inside me was riling in apprehension, that all of these would be taken away from me- any moment.And I was right. That was the last time I saw Subrata. He never came to college again, none of his friends knew where he went. He left home, understandably, because staying in Kolkata was becoming too dangerous for him. His political involvements were becoming too conspicuous. But I expected him to send me a message somehow, a letter or just a note. I waited for a couple of months, then I dared to visit his family residence in Bhowanipore. I got the address from his friends. It was a big red mansion, three-storied, the kind where the rich Bengali families resided. An elderly servant opened the door, “Yes?” he asked, did not seem to be very pleased to see a stranger woman at the door.
“I am Nalini, Subrata’s friend. Can I talk to his mother?” I said, gathering some courage.
He went inside, asking me to wait where I was. He came back after a while.
“Nobody can meet you now,” he said curtly, and was about to close the door.
“Listen,” I tried to stop him, “Do you know anything about Subrata? Do you know where he is now?” I almost pleaded. But he shut the door on my face anyway.
Dada’s condition is getting worse. He cannot eat anything and sometimes blood comes out with his vomit. At midnight of Navami, when the dhaks were played on full role for the Sandhi Puja in our neighborhood pandal, I help dada recover from a severe bout of coughing. I give him some water. “This is my last puja, and I can’t even go and see it,” he says with great difficulty. “I have never been excited about the puja, never cared to go to the pandals like others, but then why now I am longing to go outside to see it just for once? Maybe because I know I can’t.” He chokes into another bout of cough, and I massage his chest to ease the pain. I am out of words to comfort him. Later in the afternoon, Piku comes to see dada. As I go to the kitchen to make some tea, he follows me.
“Pishi,” he says, with sadness in his voice.
“Should we admit Jethu to the nursing home again?”
“There is no point, you know they released him last month saying there is nothing they can do.” “But he seems to be in so much pain.”
“We are opting for some homeopathy medications, let’s see if that helps.”
Piku still stands there, looking downwards. I touch his shoulder, “Hey, don’t be upset. The end is not always sweet- but it is what it is. We have to accept it and pray that his suffering ends sooner.”
He nods, pressing his lips and leaves the kitchen.
Subrata is gradually recovering. On the morning after Dashami, the end of the puja, I go into his room in the morning, and wish him “Subho Bijaya,” which is what Bengali people say to each other after the four days of puja. Subrata stares at me blankly. I hesitate, and then touch his right arm, which is paralyzed. I tell him, “You are looking much better, how are you?” He nods his head, “Better”, he says almost inaudibly. Over the last few days, different people have come to see him during the visiting hours. I cannot tell who is who, since I observe them from a distance, but one elderly woman seemed to be his sister. She came with his son, and I could hear him calling her ‘Pishi’. There was an innate elegance the way she carries herself, the kind which comes when one is born in a rich family and then married off to a doctor from another rich family. She seemed to be a kind person, and I fail to understand why I felt so much hatred when I saw her. Subrata now can recognize his family members. When his grandson holds his hand he smiles at him, and says things, but his words are still slurred.
A physiotherapist has been assigned to Subrata. He starts with some basic limb movements to help Subrata regain his mobility. Subrata has to repeat the exercises a few times a day, and I am given the list of instructions so that I can help. He can now eat solid food, the ryles tube has been taken off. I bring meals at his bed when I am on duty. He does not seem to pay much attention. I mix the rice with whatever it is served with, daal or fish or curry, and put scoops of it in his mouth with a spoon. “Water”, he says at times during the meals, and I hold the glass at his lips, and he drinks. I wipe his face with the towels. I try to initiate small talks like, “Is the food all right? Do you need some salt?” But he spends minimal effort to answer my questions, says ‘Yes’ or just ‘Hmm’. After lunch I follow the instructions of the physiotherapist, and help Subrata to move his right arm, and right leg slowly. He follows the routine as if he is taking some medication. Once I pressed my nail against the skin of his right arm, “Can you feel it?” I ask. He just nods his head sideways. I resume the exercises. He never turns to look at my face.
I don’t ask him if he can recognize me. He clearly doesn’t. I don’t know whether I should tell him and remind him of our past. He should be able to remember something, I mean, if he can remember who he is, then that episode cannot just be obliterated from his memory. Maybe my face has changed a lot, and he has not been able to see, I am that Nalini. My ID just reads “N. Sen”, would that mean anything to him? He has never asked my name. I hesitate to divulge. Probably it’s for the best not to bring up the past. After all- he has been married and has a family now.
Marriage has somehow never happened to me. I have not been conventionally marriageable, ever, even when I was young. I have always been very skinny, and my face at best- was average. I waited patiently in my teen years for my breasts to grow to some respectable shape, but they never did. And at some point in my youth, I stopped waiting. That was probably the beginning of my learning to stop waiting for many more things to come, like the return of Subrata, or my marriage. Dada and chhorda both tried to seek alliance with other families, for a traditional arranged marriage for me. A few prospective grooms came, along with their parents and relatives. I was made to wear the only silk saree I had, and made to carry tea served in our only from the beginning- looking at our small rented house, and then looking at me. Still they maintained an amicable demeanor to their credit. But none of them contacted afterwards, and after several of such disappointments, my family gave up the idea of my marriage. Chhorda got married to a woman who was almost half his age, then Sabari fell in love with a local cricket player and got married too. Both of my adjacent siblings, chhorda just elder than me, and Sabari just younger- got married, sealing my fate to never getting married at all.
But I never complained. I took care of my mother in her last years, completely bed ridden and blind. Now I am taking care of dada, in his last days. People may pity me for never having a family of my own, for never being a wife, or a mother. But my profession keeps me in touch with the reality of life. Every single day I get to witness how futile the prayers and dreams of humans are in front of death and decrepitude. I stand by and see very often, how all the lights and hopes instantly disappear from the faces of the family members, learning the birth of a stillborn. I have pacified innumerable mothers who gave birth to premature babies with major disabilities, those who could not survive for more than a week. And then too many mothers have died in my arms at the time of childbirth, letting the newborns see the light of the world being motherless. I see young men and women dying of accidents, or cancer, or political riots or some other incurable disease, shuttering the hearts of their parents, their partners, their children. The bloody, gory, obnoxious, rotten, disease ridden nature of life is the reality for me. The suffering is real, the suffering is the climax, all the dreams and ambitions and companionships seem to me like foreplay, just to make the torment more excruciating. So in that way I am leading an ideal life, since no one or nothing of value I can claim to be as my own. And hence, I don’t fear losing anyone, or anything.
But fate, as if to flaunt its rather insensitive sense of humor, brought Subrata in my care again. And with him all the memories, memories of my days when I still used to be in the delusion of leading a life filled with love and care. And this is what I call unfair. As if it was not enough already. An unloving and worthless father, a blind mother, the poverty, an unwholesome body, the disappearance of Subrata, and the invisible injunction of living a loveless adult life were not enough- this unbearable twist had to happen.
On the morning of Lakshmi Puja, after spending a fortnight in the nursing home, Subrata finally gets released. His son and a cousin brother come to take him home. Subrata now can walk with a stick, very slowly, and his words are together now. I have changed my shift to morning today, knowing that Subrata will be released. I explain his son the courses of the medicines prescribed. Finally he secures all the belongings, and helps his father on a wheelchair.
I don’t feel any emotion. It’s just the same, like all the other patients, as if there is no additional attachment to make the event seem more significant. The son thanks me cordially, and before being wheeled out, Subrata turns to me and holds my hand. He then says, “Thank you so much. I won’t forget how you have taken care of me.”
I smile at him, “It’s my job,” I say, “I hope you don’t have to come back again.”
Indian Review | Literature and Fiction | Sayak Roychowdhury
Indian literature magazine bringing you the best literature from around the world.
Genre: Short Story