Tuesday 1 September 2015

ShortStory 2015, Shortlist Subhash Chandra

A Pinch of Love

“Did you know about it?”
“How come I didn’t?”
“You never had the time to accompany me to the Gynaecologist.”
“At what stage you found out?”
“Fourth month.”
“You ought to have shared it with me,” Ratish said sullenly.
“I knew you would explode. And I wanted to avoid it.”
“Yes, you understand me perfectly. But why didn’t you think of getting rid of it on your own? Why should you have got both of us into this lifelong grind?”
“Speak for yourself. He’s no grind for me.”
Ratish’s temper was rising. “But you’ve got me into it without consulting me. I too will have to carry this stone around my neck all my life.”
“You can opt out if you want to. I won’t ever bother you with his needs.”

Ratish, smarting from his inability to get at her, hurt her for not having aborted the child when there was still a chance. So he shot at Triveni, “I don’t know how you could produce this monstrosity.”
She was stunned. “Shame on you. Calling our son a monstrosity.”
Ratish’s face turned red. “What else can I call him? Everything about him is skewed.”
“Still he is our son. And it’s not his fault.”
“You’re right there. It’s the genes.”
“Don’t try to insinuate. These could be your genes.”       
Ratish could not think of a riposte as usual and had to go quiet. But Triveni knew this sort of a situation was potentially dangerous. When he could not retort and kept silent he could fly into a rage, and his already high blood pressure could cause a stroke or a heart attack.

Triveni immediately began to placate him, as she had done in the past in such circumstances. “Look, Ratish, you were more frustrated when we didn’t have a child for ten years.”
“Yes. But I didn’t know this fate was in store for us.”
“You’ve used the right word. It is destiny and nobody can control it. Then why fret about it?”
Ratish calmed down a little and became rueful now. “You don’t understand, Triveni. My dreams lie splintered. I had thought our son would grow up, do his MBA or CA and join me in the business to expand it.”
“Such is life, Ratish! There’s no perfect happiness.”
“But that’s not the case with the others.”

“How do we know? Lift the lid on anybody’s life and you’ll get to know about their problems, their worries, anguish and the lacks they suffer from. Life demands adjustment, acceptance.” After a pause, Triveni added, “Let’s look at him as god’s gift to us. Let’s not crib, Ratish.”
“I must say, your god is vengeful. He has punished me for not believing in him.”
“Don’t be blasphemous! God is merciful to all.”

Ratish had composed himself, but his resentment against the ‘Fate’ and against his child remained lodged deep in his heart.
During his morning walks, he would grow wistful, when he saw a father walking with his little son holding his hand and asking questions; or he found a child squealing on the swing; or a young couple playing ball with their little one.

Four years passed and Ratish continued to be indifferent towards his son who looked at him longingly whenever Ratish passed him. Sometimes the child hesitantly lifted his arms to be picked up. Vyas’s innocent gesture which was ignored by Ratish tugged at Triveni’s heart. One day she could not restrain herself and asked Ratish, “Can’t you find a little time for your son?”
“What do you know of business pressures?”

“You’re right. I don’t come from a business family. I’m absolutely illiterate. And I’m born daft.”
Actually, her father was a fairly big realtor in Mumbai and she had been one of the top ten in the university in her undergrad exam.
The temperature had again begun to simmer. “Well…  If only you had not concealed the Gynaecologist’s report from me.”
Now Triveni felt riled by his cussedness. “Why can’t you stop this refrain? I told you the reason. I would not have allowed you to murder my son. In fact, I would have protected him at any cost – even at the cost of my life.”

The very thought of any harm to Vyas agitated her and she blurted angrily, “The truth is you are a monstrosity in this house.” But the moment the words were slid out of her mouth she apologised, “Sorry, Ratish, I didn’t mean it.”  The flare-up was sensibly averted by Triveni.
Ratish looked hurt but said in a distressed tone: “But why us, Triveni? There are hundreds of couples who get normal children.”
Triveni took a while before speaking, “Ratish, Vyas has given us a chance to be human. One day you might need him, crave for his company.”
“A poor consolation!”
She did not respond, got up and went to the bedroom to feed Vyas. “Sorry, sweetheart, it’s late for your breakfast.” She had lost count of time in the wake of argument with Ratish.
The child looked into mother’s eyes smilingly.
“Now you’re a big boy, Vyas. You should try to handle breakfast yourself. Will you?” Triveni had been cajoling him to do this for a year now. But once when she tied a bib around his neck and Vyas tried to eat, he spilled most of the porridge all around. But Triveni was not the one to give up. She was confident he would learn. 
The breakfast over, she said to him, “Keep smiling, sweetheart. I like it.”
Vyas did and lifted his right hand in a skewed way, fingers splayed. Triveni understood; he was assuring her that he would.

Years rolled on and Vyas was now eight years old. Triveni had thought that with the passage of time, Ratish would accept his son, who longed for the company of his father. But she was wrong. Ratish’s resentment against Vyas only intensified. Vyas now walked, taking unsteady, small steps. He could also speak broken sentences haltingly and make himself understood. He had been admitted to a school for the special children and most of the time, he did his homework: building blocks, counting marbles, or sketching images in the drawing book. In the evening, when Ratish came back home, he would assiduously keep out of his way. What he had known instinctively as a small child, he now knew consciously through years of observation. But sometimes he could not control himself, and toddled up to the door of the mini-office at home, stand there quietly for some time, hoping Papa would look up, and smile an invitation to him to come into the room. But that did not happen. His longing to be loved, touched and petted by Papa remained unfulfilled.

Triveni heard Ratish shouting from his office-room.
“What happened?”
“Come and see for yourself.  He has scrawled on each leaf of the cheque book. Now how do I pay salaries to the staff tomorrow?”
“Ask them to wait for a day. You can always get another cheque book.”
“This has never happened. They’ve always got their salaries on the first of the month.”
“That’s why they will not mind for one time.”
“But this fellow has to be disciplined. He can’t be allowed to go around destroying important documents.”
“You presume things. I will explain to him and he will not touch your business papers.”
“You are overly optimistic. Let us admit he is an autistic child.”
“What do you want?” said Triveni, her voice taking on an edge.
“A little physical chastisement did nobody any harm.”
Triveni hardened. “Don’t talk of such things. He is a special child and needs extra care and love.”
Ratish left for the office in angry huff, without touching his breakfast. Triveni felt bad, but she could not allow cruelty towards the vulnerable Vyas.

One day, a shout which sounded more like a wail emanated from the office-room. Her instinct told her, Vyas was at the centre of whatever had brought forth the scream and rushed to the room. Vyas stood trembling in a corner of the room, eyes wide with fright, and face contorted with anticipated terror. Ratish held in his hand the contract he had signed with the CEO of a Malaysian firm for a huge order worth one crore. For a small company like Ratish’s it was a first and a leap forward.
“What has he done?”
“He has destroyed me.”
“But will you tell me what has happened?”

“I have relentlessly worked for it for six months. My competitors employed every trick in the trade to snatch this big order. And see what havoc he has wreaked on the contract?” Ratish said slapping his forehead. 
Vyas had doodled on almost each page in an attempt to sign his name.
“This fellow was born to destroy me.”                                                    
“Calm down, Ratish. He is ignorant and did not know what he was doing. Look at his condition. He has become a frightened mouse. It is not good for him. Remember what the Counsellor told us? If we want him to become self-dependent, he should be treated with love.”

“To hell with you and your Counsellor. You have no idea of the soup he has landed me in. The CEO left last evening. If I don’t have the original contract, I can’t get the necessary clearances from the Ministries of Commerce, Home, and External Affairs. It is all over,” he snarled and looked daggers at Vyas, who had not taken his scared eyes off his father since the ruckus erupted. “Let me tell you, he is not going to stay here any longer. That is final. In a week’s time, I will put him in a Home.”
Triveni was aghast. “How can you even think of that?”
Vyas who had stood mute all this while, started bawling, “Sorry Papa…  Sorry Papa… Please no. Please no.” He was eager to avert the catastrophe in his life and ran and wrapped himself around his mother’s legs.

She patted his head reassuringly and said “Don’t worry, beta. Don’t worry. Nothing will happen. Calm down. You will be with us, always.”
But after a week, a van pulled up in front of their house and four attendants in white uniform stood at the door with a letter. Ratish nodded, signed the paper and pointed to Vyas. Amidst a storm of shrieks and howls of Vyas and Triveni, the child was dragged away. Of course, Ratish had arranged for the best and the most expensive Home for the Special Children in Delhi. Triveni fainted and took long to get back to senses.

Since the day Vyas was taken away, Triveni went quiet and listless. She went about doing the housework like an automaton and every now and then would head for the bedroom for a copious cry. Ratish tried a couple of times to talk to her and assure her that Vyas would be better off at the Home, as they would look after his comforts and security, and bring him up the right way. They would educate him and also teach him a skill.

“They would observe if he has any talent – which some of the special children have – and they would hone it further,” Ratish said.
But Triveni only sat staring blankly over his head. “Triveni, you will thank me one day when he grows up to be a well behaved and responsible adult.”
Chagrined silence quivered between them.
“Shall we go to meet him coming Sunday?” Ratish suggested.

She got up and went to the bedroom, which had become her refuge from the intolerable outer world.
Ratish sometimes wondered whether he had done the right thing. Would Triveni get out of the shock of her separation from Vyas? She did not look well nowadays and he was anxious for her. He loved her and could not afford to lose her. But then he thought of the more destructive acts Vyas might indulge in. As he grew up, he might also begin to assert physically and it would be difficult to manage. He hoped slowly Triveni would reconcile to his absence and get back to the routine. He was mistaken.

Triveni’s health progressively deteriorated. First she lost appetite, then would not feel like getting up and out of the bed in the mornings and then lost the desire to live. These were the classic symptoms of depression. Ratish first took her to a general physician who advised consultation and treatment by a psychiatrist.

Ratish gave her one doze in the morning and asked her to take two more doses as prescribed by the doctor. But Triveni threw the medicines in the garbage bin and told him a lie. She was losing weight and energy and turned into a skeleton. Half dark moons appeared under her eyes which got sunk into their sockets. She was inching towards death slowly but steadily. She was still in bed when Ratish got ready to leave for office. But when he went to say bye to her, he found a cold, lifeless Triveni, staring at the ceiling with her sad eyes.

Ratish’s world crumbled. He had not imagined the life he would be thrown into with the departure of Triveni. He had miscalculated the intensity of her reaction to Vyas being taken away to the Home. Now when he came to an empty home in the evening, he felt desolate and lonely.  Over the next one year he began to look at himself as the murderer of Triveni. Guilt weighed heavy on his conscience and he was restless throughout the night. The empty space by his side glared at him and chided him for his intransigence. Triveni was right. He was the monster in the house.
One day Hira Lal, a labourer in his factory came to ask for a loan.

“How much?” Ratish asked.
“Sir, ten thousand.”
“Why do you want so much money?”
“Sir, my wife and I want to celebrate the birthday of our son.”
“How old is he?”
“Sir, fourteen.”
“Do you celebrate his birthday every year?”
“Yes, Sir. But only in name. His mother cooks something special for all of us and we enjoy together.”
Ratish, starved of conversation prolonged it. “And what do you intend to do this time,” he asked handing him the voucher which would get him the money from the cashier.

“Sir, this year we want to invite children from the neighbourhood. We will get noodles and pijas for the party and we will also give a small gift to each child.”
“Oh, that is good,” Ratish said, but inside he was a little irritated that these poor people, who always keep whining of privations should burn so much money on a child’s birthday.”
Hira Lal lingered.
“Sir, we request you to kindly grace the function, even if you come for a few minutes. We will be very grateful.”

What Ratish saw at Hira Lal’s house shook him to the roots. Children were chirping cheerfully in the room decorated with buntings and balloons and the ceiling was painted fresh in rainbow colours. The table in the centre had a big multilayered cake with fifteen candles on it, and a knife lying by its side. An autistic child stood by the side of the table, looking at the cake longingly. Hira Lal was waiting for his boss to arrive before they cut the cake.
Ratish was served a piece of cake the first of all and it was the birthday boy who brought it to him in a paper plate. He patted the child, who smilingly looked up at him. Ratish was surprised to notice an uncanny resemblance between him and Vyas. Did all autistic children look alike?    
The next morning, Ratish was at the Home. When Ratish met him in the Director’s office, Vyas cast a gaze at him that spurted hatred. When the Director told him, he was being taken home by his father, Vyas vehemently refused.

“Won’t you like to be with your Mom?”
Vyas thought for a while and then agreed. Ratish did not have the courage to tell the Director about Triveni.

On reaching home, Vyas went from room to room and then looked at his father interrogatively?
“Mummy has gone to her parents. She would be back in a few days.”
Vyas felt downcast. Every morning Vyas got up and searched the rooms for his Mummy. Slowly he realised Papa had told a lie. She would never come back. He refused to respond to the overtures Ratish made to win him over. Every now and then he would bring toys which he knew Vyas liked, or order the food which was his favourite. But nothing seemed to make a difference. Vyas grew increasingly restless and angry with his father for cheating him.
One evening when Ratish got back home, he did not find his son. Vyas had walked out of the house and left him for good.

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