Friday 15 September 2017

Short Story 2017 Shortlist Neeraj Chawla

My Time Has Come

He was dying. Was she the only one who could see this clearly, thought Nirmala?
Maybe it was because he was her husband of over twenty-six years, so she knew his every tic.  Or maybe she had seen death more closely than anyone or maybe it was because of her sixth sense. Since she had been young, Nirmala always had a touch of clairvoyance. She could sometimes sense events before they happened. Like the sex of her children, she guessed boys all the three times. Like with her father, who took ill when she was in college with a simple cold. But Nirmala could sense that something was wrong and a few days later, the doctors confirmed a brain tumour that was malignant. 

Nirmala also sensed her mother’s death. The dread of her husband, Nirmala’s father’s imminent death had started to eat away at her health. Her mother started to fade as the demands of nursing her husband increased and when Nirmala moved back to her parent’s house after her marriage to look after her father, her mother died soon after.

“My time has come!” she told Nirmala, eyes still on her husband lying beside her and then died.
Nirmala spent the next few years juggling between her father’s illness, his bouts of incoherence, his forgetfulness at who Nirmala was, his anger and her husband, kids and home. She saw her father die day by day, saw death slowly claim him till one day he finally passed away, still living in his own world.  She went back to her home and husband, Ramesh, a kind hearted simple man, who had allowed his wife, being the only child, to take care of her parents in their illness. Years passed but the death of her father always stayed on Nirmala’s mind like a spectre, an unacknowledged ghost. Her children, three boys, grew up, married and her family increased as grandchildren filled her heart and home. 

Then last year, her husband Ramesh fell ill and complained of chest pains, fever. The check-up showed his blood pressure was high and he was suffering from diabetes. Medicines came into her life again, she now ensured he took every day.
Last month, Nirmala walked into their bedroom and saw that Ramesh was sitting aimlessly starting at the wall. She touched him on the shoulder to see what was wrong but he would not recognise her. She panicked and yelled for her sons, daughter-in-law for help. Before they came, Ramesh caught hold of her hand and spoke to her,

“My time has come!” he said eyes glazed and unfocused, “My time has come!”
Then his eyes cleared up just as the rest of the family barged in. Hard as she tried he would not remember saying anything to her. He had no memory of the incident or of his utterance. Nirmala did not push the point but kept a sharper eye on him, a greater vigil of his illness and hoped her sixth sense would tell her if he was more ill than he looked.
A week ago, her sixth sense kicked in and told her that he was dying. She gathered the children over dinner the next day and told them their father was very sick, needed help. The children were sceptical but obedient. They knew their mother was not prone to drama so the family got together and sought the best medical advice money could buy.

Ramesh was taken for advanced medical tests, scans and diagnostics of all kind in multiple hospitals. But all the tests came back negative. Beyond a blood pressure and diabetes condition that was under control, the medical fraternity found nothing wrong with him and they had checked every inch of his body, every fluid and explored every possibility.
The diagnosis was simple. He was old with a few known problems but he was fine.
Nirmala saw the reports, heard the doctors and could not understand what was happening. Her sense told her that Ramesh was dying. She knew it with a deep conviction right down to her bones that he was dying. The family kept silent, having run of alternatives, medical procedures and some of the children started muttering at the costs. Nirmala knew the costs and she was rational enough to know she needed to give up the medical approach. There was no point staining the children or the family money any more.
So, the medical tests stopped and life limped back to normal. The children went back to their livelihood and Ramesh, to his retired existence, television, he so enjoyed. Only Nirmala could not go back to normalcy.
Dread and the spectre of death would not go away. She could not sleep and found herself looking at her husband in the middle of the night while he snored softly every day. And every day, her feeling of dread and conviction of Ramesh’s death continued to increase.

The smell of chillies made the back of Nirmala’s throat itch even after crossing the spice lane behind. The small street, in the by lanes of Old Delhi, looked bullied on both sides by the shops whose merchants who had hung their goods outside the shops encroaching the air above the road. So it felt claustrophobic. The rickshaws, the cycles honked insistently with porters carrying loads in jute sacks shouting hoots so the path in front of them cleared as they hurried to their destination. The person who was leading her kept looking back at her to reassure himself that she was still following and, she guessed, to ensure that a porter or a rickshaw hadn’t knocked her over.

Why am I doing this? Asked Nirmala as she followed the mousy looking man deep into the heart of old Delhi. By-lanes merged into smaller by-lanes and after a few turns in random directions, the man finally stopped in front of a large shop that sold underwear wholesale. Before Nirmala could start her outrage, he held his hand up and pointed to a small staircase beside the shop, so non-descript that she had not noticed it earlier. With trepidation, she climbed the steps three floors onto a porch, where a woman was beating some clothes to death with a bat using water and soap. 

The woman washing clothes gave Nirmala comfort of the known and familiar. The mousy man ushered her into a larger anteroom that smelt of incense, its walls adored with Shlokas, pictures of various deities. A calendar wall-hanging type hung on a nail in the wall and swayed to the beat of a dirty three-fin fan that creaked as it huffed and threw air around the room.
A white sheet seating areas on the floor dominated the room and an old fashioned wooden chest sat atop it. The man behind the desk looked up as she entered, gave a deep bow of welcome and asked her to sit. Acharya Santosh Kumar was a middle-aged man with a pleasant face dotted with a black thick moustache. He wore a black sleeveless open collar jacket atop a white kurta, a bead of Rudrakasha beads around his neck and a red inch-long Tilak on this forehead.
The mousy man introduced her and hurried away to fetch her some water.
                “How can I help you Nirmala ji?” asked the Acharaya with politeness.
                “I …I..” stuttered Nirmala, unsure of how to position her predicament and getting second thoughts about this meeting.
                Acharaya kept silent and smiled.
                “Nirmala ji” he said, “you have come this far. Something is clearly troubling you that much is clear. If you allow me advise on it, it would be my honour.”
                His humility made uttering her words easier.
                “My husband, Ramesh” she said, “he is unwell and that is why I have come”
                Lines creased on the Acharaya’s head and politely, he started to extract the exact reasons for Nirmala’s visit. Her fear shone through and after she had a glass of water, the truth came tumbling out as well.
“Do you know what Lal Kitaab is?” he asked her, after a thought to her predicament and problem.

“No” she said.
“In our cultural heritage, Lal Kitaab is one of the most influential set of books on astrology and palmistry.  Ancient Shastras form the base of this book. Unique in the sense this book combines astrology, planetary positions of one’s horoscope to the line on one’s hand, palmistry, to find out the fate or destiny of a person. The ledger of one’s Life,” said Acharya with reverence.
He looked away then and spoke softly.

“Some people believe the Lal Kitaab was with the demon Ravaan in the time of the Ramayana. He lost the book, some say, due to his arrogance and Lord Ram become his demise. Some believe the book has Persian or Arabic roots. There are several theories of its origination but most people who have studied it agree that it is key pillar of our Vedic astrology today and has many followers. Most followers are looking for predictions to their problems in life.”
“These predictions, a red colour book is in red binding. The Lal Kitaab of one’s life,” he added
“Why?” she asked curious.

“Mostly tradition, I think,” he added, “also, for decades red bind on books have dominated Indian and Pakistani small businesses as their key business ledger for recording transactions. Profits, Loss, creditors and debtors. The Lal Kitaab, too, is the same, a recording of one transactions in life and detailing the emotional creditors and debtors.”
“Is it accurate?” she asked.
“It is a question of belief, Nirmala ji” said Acharaya, “If you believe then it is accurate”
She thought for a moment.
“So, if I believe and read the Lal Kitaab of my husband, can I know if he is dying?”
“Yes” he replied softly.
“So why don’t more people use this Lal Kitaab?” she asked confused, excited there was another way to prove that her fears wrong.
He smiled.

“Would you want to know when you will die Nirmala ji?”
She thought for a moment. Knowing would cause a dread and she would stop living. She would be alive, driven only by the knowledge of her death. Time would feel short and it would destroy her relationships, her wants to achieve anything and take over her daily existence. Knowing about it was worse than dying.
He waited while she thought the question through and kept silent as she figured out the next set of questions.

“Can we avert the death or events of the Lal Kitaab?”
This time there was a tinge of sadness in Acharaya’s eyes as he replied.
“Again, it is a question of faith. The Lal Kitaab offers remedies. Quick and affordable remedies that can help you avoid events or calamities. The dedication and faith with which you perform these remedies decides if the event can be avoided.”
She sat back and thought. It was a chance, a slim chance but a chance and none of her children need know about this or her husband for that matter. She would handle this burden on her own. Even if this Lal Kitaab was wrong or nonsense, she had the capacity to handle this on her own. She came to a decision.
“I would like you to create my husband’s Lal Kitaab” she looked up and said to Acharya.

The blood red book with white thread bind sat on the table unopened for two days. Tied in the middle with a dark red thread in a simple knot which she had not opened yet. Symbols adorned it written in vermillion orange by a finger.

Nirmala had received it from the mousy man a few days ago. But a deep dread had filled her as she had opened the saffron cloth that contained the book and saw it for the first time. A tightening in her chest that refused to go away.
So, she packed her bags and headed over to her sister’s house in the holy town of Haridwar. Ramesh and the children surprised she had decided to make the trip but had accepted when she suggested she needed to pray and find solace in Haridwar, on the banks of Ganga. It is hard to fool a man who has lived with you for years and knows you better than yourself. She had mostly succeeded. Ramesh knew something was off but was willing to let her indulge in whatever she had her nose in, at that moment.

The prayers in the morning and evening at the Ganga Ghat’s had not lifted the fear and panic in her and she had not been able to open the book. She also had trouble sleeping since the book had arrived.
On the third day, in her room, in the middle of the night when her sister’s family slept, she sat in front of the book and pondered if she should burn it or read it. The decision put her on a knife’s edge.
With a sigh, she went back to bed and tried sleeping again but gave up after tossing and turning for an hour.  She clicked open her phone and started to browse her messages. In her absence, it seemed the family had decided to go on a picnic and had taken Ramesh along. Had she been there she would never have allowed Ramesh to exert himself so much but when the cat is away, she sighed. She opened the pictures they had sent. 

The grandchildren always made her smile.
She came across a picture of Ramesh sitting apart while the children with their families ate and played. It was a candid picture of a man, who looked content with his life and he sat looking at his family with a wistfulness on his face.
The picture decided it for her. She switched on the lights, sat on the table and opened the Lal Kitaab.

The bloody thing was confounding.
It was a collection of riddles, vague sentences and confusing language. She looked to the havens and let out a curse. The language was so difficult and let itself to many interpretations and points of view.
With effort and using the Internet, she started to labour on the language of the book. Some sentences on his life were so accurate that they took her breath away with their accuracy. But that was the past and she had benchmark events to correlate the predictions to the actual events. The future, well, was another story.
After a few hours, she gave up.

But still could not sleep. The language of the book playing in her mind. The interpretations appearing as possibilities she had not considered when she had read the text the first time praying on her fears and insecurities.
She got up again and attacked the book again with a vigour. This time she used a blank page to copy the important sentences and used the Internet to check translations and word uses.
It took three hours for her to finish the complete scan of the book.
The results sat on the page she had used to make notes. With a degree of reasonable confidence, the conclusion was mostly clear. She could not be sure but the book hinted that her fears were true.
Her husband’s life was ending. Her fears and days of anxieties had come true confirmed to a degree by Vedic astrology. Not that her sixth sense had let her down ever but with loved ones you doubt yourself more.

The sobs came as the paper slipped to the floor from her hands. This time she let the tears come unabated. She cried unashamedly for an hour. Racks of sobs one after the other as her life moments flashed before her eyes. Each frame causing her soul to cry and weep.
The tears dried up.
She sat staring at the wall of the room, its light brown paint helping her focus on nothing but herself. The blankness of her mind and getting rid of her thoughts helped.
To accept death is the hardest, she thought, to accept the event as fated is the biggest torture we can face. We know that we are dying, it’s not a secret. Everyone and everything is dying, that is the cycle of life. Yet we delude ourselves into believing that we are permanent, that only other people die and not the ones that are close to us or ourselves.

The acceptance came slowly but reluctantly kicking up frustration, anger, depression in its wake in an endless cycle where she bargained with herself and God to find a way to change the outcome.  Once you accept, you move on. To finding alternatives that change your life with its new reality.
Then the Acharaya’s words resonated in her psyche suddenly like lightning. The answer to her question if we can avert the death or event in the Lal Kitaab.
“It is a question of faith. The Lal Kitaab offers remedies. Quick and affordable remedies that can help you avoid events or calamities. The dedication, faith with which you perform these remedies decides if the event can be avoided.”
With desperation, she picked up the book again and searched for the remedies.

She rubbed her hands on her eyes for thirty minutes while another tear slipped from her eyes involuntarily.

She shook the tear away.
The remedies were, well, there was no word that described them except plebeian. She was struggling to understand how this would help her husband. But faith is a cruel mistress, it demands acceptance without questioning its methods or means.
The first remedy went, feed a set of ten girls under the age of five year a portion of sweet porridge and sugar, after prayer and after washing their feet. This was doable, she thought, once a week. The thought that young innocent girl children would bless her family and please the Gods was satisfying. She could see this would serve a good cause.

The second remedy was tougher. Feed fishes after prayer in the morning of every Tuesday for two months. Nirmala smiled, where would she find fishes in the urban jungle that was New Delhi. She was sure that any fish that existed in the River Yamuna was mostly dead due to pollution. Also, knowing her husband, he would be more inclined to feed himself some excellent fish dishes than feed any live fish.

The third remedy wanted her to force Ramesh to recite the Hanuman Chalisa, a Hindu devotional hymn (stotra) addressed to God Hanuman. Every day, she sighed reading. Then to take a bottle of oil to the Temple of God Shani for an offering. At the temple, after offering the oil to Gods, the remedy further suggested that you donate the slippers you are wearing to a beggar or a person in need.
A slow pain, throb just behind her temple built and threatened to engulf Nirmala as she pondered the remedies. She sucked in her breath, found courage right at the bottom of her hope’s parched lake and steeled herself to bulldoze anyone including her husband who stopped her from performing these remedies.
Faith always needs a strong-willed women or men to enforce the steps and guide everyone to the path of fulfilment and enlightenment.

The remedies became a source of much amusement for her children. There was the usual grumbling, moaning about some of the activities particularly from Ramesh but she enforced the implementation of them with an iron fist and stony unamused stares.

Ramesh made the effort largely for her, she knew. She believed and he just wanted to make her happy and for her peace of mind would do what she asked.

The first remedy was pleasant for everyone. The young innocent girls fed, happy and with smiles on their faces blessed everyone with their eyes. Their little hands clutched tightly the gifts they received and the food that was so tasty, made specially for them. Their smiles gladdened everyone’s hearts.
The second remedy was harder. So, Nirmala had ordered a fish aquarium installed at home and that too was a hit with the kids at home. The fish were a joy, difficult to maintain but a joy nonetheless.

“Where the hell are the slippers?” yelled Ramesh causing Nirmala to smile.
 The third remedy was tough. The first time, underprepared they went and Ramesh had to donate his favourite slippers at the Shani temple. Then he had to walk barefoot back to their home a few hundred yards away groaning at every step. Men become such babies she thought sometimes. Afterwards, he grumbled under his breath for two days behind her back. She let him.
The preparation was better this time. She had bought a new set of slippers and would also carry a spare for him to wear after the donation.
                “Found them!” he yelled a minute later after banging a few cupboards hard. She kept preparing the plate with the oil for the offering at the temple.

                “You go ahead” she told him handing him the plate with the oil, “I’ll follow with your spare slippers in a bit.”
                He made a face but with good humour went ahead. The man was too dependent on her sometimes, she fumed but then smiled. She would not have it any other way. The temple was close by, just a few minutes’ walk from their home. She searched the house for his spare slipper but could not find them. She woke up her daughter-in-law, it was early morning and everyone was sleeping.
                Gathering the spare slippers, she rushed behind Ramesh to the temple.
Ramesh was fuming standing outside the temple waiting for Nirmala. The new slippers were damn tight and uncomfortable. He missed his old slippers.
The truck came out of nowhere. The driver of the truck had been driving the entire night for a special delivery of sugar and was rushing back to his depot. The driver, tired to the bone, lost control due to lack of sleep and probably dozed while driving.

The truck crushed Ramesh in the accident and he died on the spot.

Nirmala sat surrounded by her children in the hospital. Three months, she thought sluggishly. He had been dead three months.
The guilt that Ramesh would not have died if not for the remedy of going to the temple was a nail that had hammered itself home on her heart after his death. Inch by painful inch, the nail had made its way into her heart every day and bled.
Now the wound was festering. Her diagnosis was severe depression after she collapsed in her home yesterday. The children had rushed her to the hospital and got her admitted immediately. All of them now stood around her bed at the hospital trying to cheer her up. Nurses were phonily trying to let them know that fifteen people in a hospital room was not a norm but they smiled slyly envious of the woman surrounded by a loving family.

Her youngest came in looking at the hospital reports and having spoken to the doctors.
“Everything’s fine Ma. All tests are negative and you are just weak per the Doctors. They will discharge us tomorrow.”
The children whooped.
Her eldest son then pushed his daughter to the front.
“We have planned her marriage Ma” he said to her while the girl blushed furiously, “just six months later. You get well soon and then we will get this one married traditionally, with much fanfare and even more dancing.”

Cheers went up with all the children looking forward to better times already.
Nirmala smiled and hugged the young girl tight. And held on for a few seconds longer than necessary. She knew she would not be attending her marriage or any marriage.
She had always had a sixth sense and it had kicked in yesterday.
She knew that she only had a month to live. The sixth sense had not been wrong yet.
My time has come, she whispered softly to herself.

a Hindu or Buddhist spiritual teacher or leader
a distinctive spot of coloured powder or paste worn on the forehead by Hindu men and women as a religious symbol
Red Book – Literal translation
a flight of steps leading down to a river

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