Appearances are not reality. Only crises or testing times would show the true colours of the people around us, of even those very close to us... this point is driven home in this touching story ... Ed.
Kedar Pandey raised himself to a sitting position with the help of a pillow. Outside, evening was spreading its wings and through the window he could see thin lines of smoke rising from the slum clusters situated at the banks of the river Yamuna.
Godhuli always sounded more apt than any other word to describe an approaching evening. He had discovered the word in his school, in Hindi class while writing synonyms. It also had childhood connotations of the small village in Himalayan Mountains where he grew up. As a child, the whole idea of dust stirred and raised to the sky by the hoofs of cattle returning from pastures had created a strong imagery of homecoming that brightened his childhood chiaroscuro with subliminal traces of security.
That childhood imagery of godhuli had long disappeared in the cacophony of a city growing out of its seams, where he had now been living for more than forty years. But over the past few years, since his retirement, as he spent more and more of his evenings confined within the apartment, he longingly watched the smoke rising from the slum clusters. He thought of the people returning to their humble dwellings, pedalling their bicycles, their bags containing empty tiffin boxes, seasonal vegetables purchased at cheaper rates at the
mandies, or bits of sweetmeats - jalabies or gulab jamuns. Weren’t these small pleasures most cherished ones, he often mused? Then he thought of his duplex apartment, its roominess and the tranquilness of its cream colour interior. It had the ability to mask the widespread ugliness that reigned outside.
How happy was his son Arun when they had decided to buy this apartment? A new generation boy, he was never satisfied with small things.
“The middle class mentality of being content is stifling. It doesn’t allow us to grow to our potential.” He would say and for him, purchase of the apartment in an upmarket residential block was one big step out of the middle class mentality.
“I will organise parties here.” He had said occupying the room opening onto the terrace.
“But, beta, parties are very noisy. Loud music and halla-gulla.” His mother had meekly protested.
“Not the teenage parties, Ma, I am talking about the ones where one makes contacts…the networking parties”, he had added.
And Rama had agreed, such a straightforward woman she was, she didn’t even need a second convincing. And parties Arun did organize and they were quiet ones too. As Kedar Pandey and Rama sat in their bedroom all they heard of the parties downstairs was deep throaty opinions and occasional controlled laughter. And Arun must have made contacts, as they realised it the day he came home beaming with happiness.
“It has happened, I did it.” He had said hugging his mother. “I am offered a senior managerial position in a well known software company in Bangalore. Can you believe it? Don’t I always say that one literally needs to pull oneself out of a situation to achieve something; otherwise one would remain like a water buffalo in a small, muddy pond chewing cud.” And despite their protestations, he was gone. “The world has grown very small. Nowadays people wake up in one country, take breakfast in another and lunch in a third one and are back home for dinner. And I am only going to Bangalore and, after all, it would be extremely foolish not to accept such a career proposal.”
He was gone for four years. His brief visits to Delhi were always work related with a little time left for his aging parents. The house since had grown bigger and quieter.
Darkness was slowly filling into the room. For a moment Kedar Pandey felt he was all alone, castaway in a barren island. Was it
godhuli for him as well? Was he standing at the twilight of his own life? As his eyes roved in the growing darkness, the day’s events unfolded and a city that he had known so intimately suddenly appeared monstrous, frozen in an unmitigated hostility. Rama had warned him not to go out. “Why can’t you just sit at home? Do you know how bad the city traffic has become? No one cares about others; it is not the same city.” But he was too excited. He had been reading in the newspapers and watching on the television about the underground Delhi Metro. He couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen that within twenty minutes one could travel between Central Secretariat and Delhi University. On top of that, one could emerge from the underground at the thick of Chandni Chowk - eat
parathas at Parathewali Galli and stroll to Mirza Ghalib’s memorial at Ballimaran. He had seen the changing faces of the city, had felt a deep lamentation at the way its tranquillity was being overrun by an unprecedented megalomania. And it had kept him indoors, within his cocoon of tranquilness. But the underground Metro overwhelmed him and he had decided to venture out.
“Take a taxi or at least an auto.” Rama had cautioned him.
“I have travelled in city buses for so many years of my life. You unnecessarily get over-anxious.” He had quickly told his wife as he came out.
And as he sat in a bus to Connaught Place to have a ride in the underground Metro he had fondly reminisced about his years of travelling by the city buses. For him and his co-office goers in RK Puram, the buses that operated to Central Secretariat were almost an extension of their lives. Even their seats were designated and the half hour’s journey involved all kinds of gossip - politics, spirituality, matrimony and everyday life. How brazen and intimate those conversations could become, he remembered. He had just resumed attending the office after few weeks leave following his marriage and on the way to the office he had yawned.
“Pandey, you don’t get to sleep enough these days, hanh! What’s the matter?” an overtly vocal Malhotra had said and the office goers had burst into laughter.
“O Malhotra, you will know very soon what’s the matter.” He had responded knowing that Malhotra was getting married soon.
Another laughter, louder than the previous one, had filled the bus. Such were the days of travelling in the city buses with a familiar nonchalance.
The bus was relatively empty and a cool breeze blowing from the river belied his apprehensions about travelling in the city buses. I must bring Rama with me next time. Maybe we would take lunch at Chandni Chowk. She would love the taste of hot
emaratis. He thought, well aware of his wife’s weakness for sweet things. And a smile had appeared on his face. As the bus had approached Connaught Place, he had gotten up to go to the front of the bus when four youngsters surrounded him. It had taken him by surprise as the bus was not crowded and he had quickly realised that one of them was trying to reach to his pocket. He was about to raise an alarm when he had felt something sharp nudging on his ribs, on his left hand side.
“Uncle, you make noise and your innards will be out.” One of them had whispered in his ear.
As he looked at them in wild disbelief, the nudging sharpness ran through his torso, squeezing his heart. He had felt his legs turning jelly and bathed in sweat as he collapsed on the bus floor.
The next thing he remembered was being in a hospital bed; a teary Rama and his neighbour Mr. Malik by the side.
“It is not serious. It was just a panic stroke. The doctor has done the preliminary check-up and you can go home. I will call the doctor and get you discharged”, Mr. Malik had said.
Giving him a discharge certificate, the young doctor had explained to him that his heart was functioning normal. It could have happened due to the extreme stress. “But you must go for a thorough check-up. You know, what the modern day life style does to our health. Especially in old age one must be very careful,” the doctor added.
Back home, Rama called Arun and explained the incident to him. But once he learnt that it wasn’t serious he told his mother that he was in a meeting and would call back later. Rama was distraught by Arun’s carelessness. Kedar Pandey knew how difficult it would have been for Rama. She was utterly unfamiliar with the outside world; it was home that was her domain. For her, on her own it would have been impossible even to locate the hospital where he was admitted. What surprised him was seeing her with Mr. Malik. She did not approve a bit of Mr. Malik. A divorcee, Mr. Malik was well known for his unabashed lifestyle and his fondness for drinking and gambling.
On a couple of occasions, he had a few trots with Mr. Malik who would always say, “Pandey, what is this life all about! We need to live it up otherwise we are just … See, I have two children and both are settled abroad. They send me picture postcards! What do I do with these picture postcards? They are living their lives and I am living mine. My wife became too spiritual, too religious, and decided that to live in an
ashram was the ultimate aim of her life. And when I protested she asked for divorce. Wasn’t she intoxicated on religion and those bloody gurus who look more like
kirana shopkeepers than spiritual leaders? And if I drink and live a so-called colourful life, I become a culprit.”
Though he understood Mr. Malik’s point, after admonitions from Rama, he stopped sharing drinks with him. And today, seeing Rama with Mr. Malik had surprised him. Was she so overwhelmed that she even decided to go against her own rules? How would she be able to manage if something happened to him and if Arun remained so self-centred and careless?
Panicked by his thoughts he called her, “Rama…O Rama!”
“Oh you are awake! I thought you are still sleeping. But why are you sitting up. Lie down. You need rest.”
He felt a bit puzzled at the quizzing. But her presence in the room reassured him and overcoming the bout of panic, he sidelined her queries and said, “It’s getting dark. Can you switch the lights on?”
“There is no electricity. We are having another blackout; no one knows for how long. I will bring a candle but you lie down.” She said, switching on the lights in an unintended effort to show that there actually was a blackout.
As she turned back he looked at her intently; her silhouette outlined her frailness even more strongly. Petit and demure, she was a small-framed woman who could never grow beyond her own orbit. He knew it wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t been out of her village when they married. He brought her out of those sylvan hills to the pandemonium of the city life. But that time, Delhi wasn’t like a pressure cooker as it had become now. It was a small city of office going people with wide roads and leafy avenues. Everything looked manageable; it was the people who managed the city. Even in those sleepy surroundings, Rama looked uncomfortable. She was overwhelmed by everything - distances, the spread of the sky, traffic and the different lingua. He wanted her to be more of a city girl, like a whole lot of others had become outgoing and confident. But she remained her own self and after his initial exasperation he started liking her demureness. Perhaps, it had satiated his male ego, stroked his pride. He was happy to have a perfect housewife - a woman dependent on her man. And it took care of all his needs, from clean socks and tied up buttons, carefully packed tiffin boxes and a clean and tidy house.
But now as his body ached and his mind wandered, he thought whether it wouldn’t have been good to impress upon her to become a bit more outgoing, a bit more independent. Especially, now that Arun had shown his careless attitude. He was eager to know whether Arun had rung and as Rama approached with the candle he asked her. “Did Arun ring?”
Putting the candle by the bedside table Rama pushed a lock of her hair back within the folds of her
sari and looked at him for a moment without responding.
Her silence intrigued him and he prodded again “Did he ring?”
“Yes and he said he can’t come.” She was speaking in a very measured voice. “He is busy with the expansion program of his company. And he says that since it is not serious and requires only check-up, it would be good if we could manage it ourselves. He said he will send money and can ring up Escorts hospital to make appointment for the check-up. He will visit Delhi soon for work and will take some leave at that time.”
And as she tried to shield the candle from the breeze blowing in from the window, he stared quietly at the dancing shadows on the wall. He felt the stiffness on his left side growing heavier and all he could mutter was, “So…”
Rama was again silent for few moments before she said, “I have arranged it.”
“What do you mean? What have you arranged?” He said, both puzzled and surprised by her response.
“I have arranged for your check up. I rang the Escorts and made an appointment for your check-up. The appointment is for tomorrow at 11 AM. Mr. Malik insisted that he would accompany us. He wanted to drive us but I decided that we would take a taxi. He had come here while you were sleeping. It is just a check-up and everything will be fine.” And she sat by the side of the bed and took his hand into hers and slowly caressed it.
He kept lying on the bed, eyes fixed at the roof.
“But…” he said, “…You had a different opinion of Mr Malik.”
Rama continued caressing his hand; her head bent over her small frame. Finally she looked up, her face distorted in an attempt to keep her tears away. The effort shook her body as she said, “I had a different opinion of our son also!”
He pulled himself up and took her shaking frame in his arms. They both sat together, silently breathing into one another’s presence.
“Electricity is back!” children playing outside in the street roared. And as the room got bathed in the electric light, they both looked at one another with teary smiles.