Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013 Shortlist, Geeta Sahai

Just A Breath Away...

On a frozen overcast cloudy December night in Almora, I decided to venture out alone.  A gust of icy wind struck me. Staying alone since two years had made me quite used to the zigzag mountainous narrow passage. The dim halogen street lights, escaping through the shuttered tall pine trees, help me navigate through the night’s silence.   Seeing my favourite tea shop still open at the cliff, I inhale fresh air deeply and carelessly throw myself on the edge of the bench. The tea stall owner stares at me, questioningly.  

“It’s extremely dangerous to come out of the cottage at this time, Madam…foxes and wildcats come out for…” Seeing my indifference he doesn’t complete the sentence. I keep sitting, looking at the road ahead in the flickering streetlights. My toe touches the ground. It was cold. Suddenly I am reminded of the childhood days when I would play on this gravel ground for hours. ‘Suruchi...listen...see my mud-house...Suruchi, don’t spoil my are cheating... Suruchi...where are you? Let’s play hide and seek... Suruchiiii...’
Voices jumping out of the memory shelf.

Voices from my scrapbook, lost in the time’s wilderness.
I look all around. There’s no one. I shrink and cover my legs with the knitted woollen shawl. The scattered frozen pebbles on the ground remind me of my history—that I was born here, in this half circular peak, that my childhood was spent on this soil, in this city of temples, that even after so many years this city has not shied away in hiding me in its bosom like a mother embracing her distraught child.   

“Tea?” The little boy put the steaming tea cup near my face.
I do not look at him. He keeps standing, tightly holding the cup in his little palm. “Take it Madam. It will soothe your troubled mood.”
His words pinch me. Wiping with the back of my hand the warm caress of tears against my cheeks, I turn my face towards him. He was looking at me. Even in the dim light I could see a question in his eyes. I quickly grab the cup. He winks and runs back to the counter. 

Alone, the morning conversation with Pinky, my daughter, cut through me. “Enough of it Maa…you can’t escape from responsibilities…” The blank spaces in my life fog around me, making my head reel. I bend backwards, gazing at the overshadowing, dark sky. 

“Be careful Madam…do not bend…you can fall into the valley.” The shop owner shouts. His nasal voice pierces through my reverie.  I turn and look down the deep valley.  Thick opaque blanket of darkness lurks towards me. Trembling, I catch hold of the corners of the bench, tightly.  ‘A slip and I would have... such a thin line between life and death...’ Thought sucks me up. 
And in that flash of a moment I decide.
I decide my future. 

Yellow leaves splattered all over, clothes spread on the front lawn, pots with dried stems, and an open dustbin greet me. The torn pages of the book arrest my attention.  I pick up the soiled, wrinkled pages, just like my mother who never let any old thing be thrown out of the house, “This is not useless. It’s me. I am nothing without it…these memories.” I used to laugh at her attachment with such obsolete souvenirs, then.
I move ahead before the nostalgic air could begin to swirl around me. Clutching at my handbag I tightly pull the warm shawl around my shoulders. Delhi’s cold winter breeze suddenly wafts through me, making my eyes swell with tears, blurring vision.  

“Have you come to meet somebody?” A lady descending from the first floor addresses me. Bewildered I just look at her.

Shrugging her shoulders, she gets busy with her chained Labrador. “Rocky, no…no, don’t…come here…” Suddenly I feel like an actor, past his heyday, re-exploring the stage. Changed props, new co-actors—it was like walking on an edge. I look down. The only familiar thing in the veranda—the palm plant that I had planted years ago at the entrance seizes my attention. ‘Yes, it’s me.’  I murmur, dusting the leaves with my wrinkled hands.

Hesitatingly I push the door. It opens. Like a newlywed bride, I put my right foot forward, the first step inside my own house after two years. A gush of intolerable stench greets me. I cover my nose. My eyes wander around the living room. Clothes—strewn all over the place, no decorative pieces, no wall hangings, and no crockery in my precious, glass cupboard. ‘So I am deleted from the memory!’ My inner voice warns me. The things kept on the sofa, apart from the scattered clothes were colourful blocks and rings, reminding me about Pinky’s childhood. Suddenly I feel like an outsider, a stranger.
All the happier moments of married life, perfumed with hope and anxiety tighten its grip around me. And in that one moment, a lifetime passes through my mind in a flash. Dangling between past-present, hostile corners of my shared life, gutted into filthy slums, I decide to change the wide angle lens to fish eye. Tak…tak…tak…I tap at the half open door. From the other room, I hear a familiar voice. “Ye…s Maa…I am  coming…yes, yes…”

The word Maa perplexes me. I recognize the voice but Maa!!! I recollect that she passed away years ago. We were together then.

 Suddenly, I see a figure limping into the room. Is that him? I blink and adjust my golden frame glasses. He looks at me and seals his lips. I smile.  Heartbeat thumping rapidly… thud, thud, making me blush for a moment. I wait for him to hug me…

There’s no response.
 No recognition.
 ‘Have I changed so much that he can’t even recognize me?’ I question myself.
He keeps looking beyond me.
“Hi, Sohrab.” I deliberately take his name. 
Still no response. I see he had caked his face with talcum powder.
“What happened? Why have you put so much powder on your face?”

He keeps walking towards the exit door. “Maa…Coming…!”
I block his way. Anxiety, nervousness, memories—the bubble bursts. One by one I could see the transparent bubble crashing on the ground without a whimper.  “Chandan…!” I yell, straining my vocal chords.

“Sorry…sorry, Madam…was upstairs… hanging clothes…” I see him supporting Sohrab; cajoling him to lie down on the settee. “First lie down Sir…here, then we’ll go for a stroll in the garden…your mother is waiting for you in the garden…”

I notice his stuttering, his effort in trying to connect words, his endeavour in trying to walk, cautiously putting one foot after the other.
I remember how six years old Pinky was often scolded by him, “Don’t drag your left foot. Next time you do it I’ll...” A droplet falls on my cheek. I look up at the roof, vigorously blinking my eyes, trying to control tears.

“Come Madam…Your journey was fine?”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“It wasn’t so bad Madam. But in this last one month…”
“But what has happened? What do the doctors say?”
He hands me all the prescriptions.

I nod. From the corner of my eyes, I see Sohrab shrinking in a corner. He was staring at me; look overloaded with questions. His lips were quivering, wanting to ask me something. But perhaps his voice got drowned in the twilight zone of incomprehensible fears; he began to scratch his legs, body and hair.
Tears begin to trickle down my cheeks. It was more painful than all the fights that we had had, than the realization that he no longer loved me, than facing the truth that something fundamental had shifted in our relationship, than the heartbreak.
 He looks much older than his 65 years.

His constant hostile gaze somewhere unsettles me. In an attempt to distract myself, I began to rip open the sweet boxes from my handbag.
“Hmm...So where were you going Sohrab?”
No reply. 
“Hi, Mom.”  Suddenly two thin arms encircle me from behind. 
“Hi sweetheart! When did you come?”
She makes a face.

“I know… I know…what an obvious question.” And for the first time since morning I smile. “For how long has he been like this?
“Nearly a year…”
“And you didn’t think it necessary to tell me. Huh?”
“I’m sorry…I thought it’s nothing…till he…” She leaves it midway and hugs me.
From the corner of my eyes, I see him observing us.
“Your da...aughter?” He asks, looking at me.

We both look at him astonishingly and then at each other, helplessly. Our eyes meet, and in that one moment, we unload ourselves from the bags of hurt, pain, anger and loss. We lean on each other, crying in silence.

“Madam…tea.” Breaking the silence, Chandan says, and keeps the tray on the middle table.
“Chandu, even I want…aaah…Pa...Where’re you going? Chandu, see!!!”
“I go… meet Suruchi…”
“Suruchi?”  Pinky questions, apologetically looking at me.
“Yes…” He calls Pinky with his forefinger to come near him. She reluctantly goes.  “My…. girlfriend…!”  He whispers in her ears. She steps back, kohl-lined eyes staring icily at him. He grins sheepishly.
“Suruchi? Well, Pa, then who is she?” She points at me.
“I don’t know.” 

For the first time, I see him speaking without faltering, stuttering or hesitation. He doesn’t recognize me. He doesn’t recognize his wife of 30 years. He remembers that young, petite Suruchi, who he married, not the woman who became the mother of his only child, not the woman who trusted him when he had nothing, not the woman who trusted him blindly during his long absences from home, not the woman who forgave him for cheating.

 It slays me.
My head reels.
Pinky supports me from behind.
“He is acting Mom, be brave! Nowadays, he doesn’t even recognize me…he is not well...control yourself.” She tries to calm down my nerves.
Desperately in need of fresh air, I walk out of the room into the balcony.
“C’mon Mom…” She comes after me.
I scream, clutching at the iron grill door. She holds me from behind. I put my head on her shoulders.

Suddenly there’s a deafening crack. We both dash back. We see him throwing things on the ground, stomping his feet on the ground, throwing himself on the floor, toiling like a beetle. We recoil in a corner, hugging each other, filled with repulsion. Chandan hurriedly bends down, and tightly catches both his hands.  “Sir, Sir... listen... take this ... drink it Sir... water.” He forces him to gulp it down. I had seen Chandan mixing some powder in the water.

“It was to calm him.” He says looking at us.   
 I admire Chandan’s patience. He was a small boy, when we had taken him as our helper. He is not our relative or friend. He is nobody to us, yet today he has become ‘everybody’ to us, to him—a doctor, parent, everything and everybody. While I...?
“Don’t worry, Madam…he will be alright…” Chandan reassures us. He pauses and thoughtfully adds, “Only at times he doesn’t recognize...but he will not be like this, tomorrow. He will recognize you…Pinky…remember yesterday?  He was talking to you so much…”

I sit on the sofa, restlessly shifting my legs, one on the other. I remember how he used to greet people. “Hi, Mr Malhotra, all well?” “Hello! Mr Bhaskar, how’s office?...” Often he would scold me for forgetting places, people and things. “You forgot to switch off the gas knob. One day you’ll put this house on fire with me locked inside...”  And to cool my rising temper at not being able to afford a cook, he would embrace me from behind and whisper romantically, “But I never promised you a rose garden... did I ever?...Hmmm...nice fragrance...” And then pulling himself away he would say, “So Madam, pull up your socks and let’s work together for our better tomorrow.” With his lips stretched sideways, he would plant a light kiss on the cheeks and start humming. 
I knew that man; not this vulnerable, shrivelled body lying in front of my eyes.    

But did I ever know him? Or did he ever try understanding me? Lying on bed at night, I question myself. We were young; we met and fell in love, that’s what we thought and got married. But time taught us that some people are just not ‘made for each other’ and one should accept this fact gracefully. We did. After living as husband-wife for 25 years, we amicably decided to move on, in our separate shells, rather than steering innocuous conversations to confrontations and assaulting each other with ego-boosting-damaging expletives.

We were together but not with each other.
We lived like roommates.
And today, after all these years of aimlessly serenading in emotional clutter, we are here, facing each other, like strangers, trying to find a real connection between us.
I switch off the table lamp.

Innumerable little voices wrestle within me with adversaries of time, passage and trends. I keep staring at the roof in the swallowing darkness; picking up bits and pieces through the rubble of memories; memories beyond time. And as the frosted recollections begin to imprison me, doctor’s words reverberate, “...He is living on bonus time. For him, every day is a gift. Alzheimer’s has eaten his mind and soul. And the truth is that as long as there is memory, there’s hope, possibility... memory fades, nothing matters...the past doesn’t matter, future doesn’t exist. Everything is just a breath, memories,, let him live for today…”
Suddenly, all unspoken pain, hatred, sorrow, doubt, flushes out of me. 

Early morning, I stealthily walk into his room; lay the bouquet of red and yellow roses beside his pillow and open the window, letting in the gentle breeze of hope.  

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