The stately two-storied house in the suburbs of Kolkata was in a dilapidated state. The surrounding garden, grown wild in the absence of proper maintenance, added to the gloom. The trees had grown unchecked and the fallen leaves remained scattered all over the lawn.
In a small bedroom in the upper story of the building lay the septuagenarian Purushottam Das, confined to his bed. A massive stroke, about two years back, had paralyzed him totally. He was neither able to speak nor could he utter any sound. His mouth remained slightly open and gave an impression of a permanent scowl on his face. His eyes mostly remained open and staring, up at the ceiling, although he was able to open and close his eyelids.
Das lived with his wife and unmarried son, Sanjiv, at the house. Sanjiv was employed in a firm in Kolkata and therefore was away from the house for most part of the day.
An elderly couple, most probably some poor distant relations of Das, stayed in the house. The wife took care of the household chores while the husband, Tarak, tended to the needs of Das. He slept in Das’s room at night.
Every day, without fail, Tarak got up very early in the morning. His first duty was to check upon Das and change his clothing and the sheets.
However, on that particular day, when Tarak went near Das, he found him to be strangely different. During the past two years, Tarak had seen no expression in Das’s eyes. They were always blank and unseeing when open, staring fixedly at the ceiling. But today he found Das was rapidly opening and closing his eyelids. Tarak also observed that his eyes looked as if they had suddenly come to life.
Tarak had heard stories about how bedridden people suddenly showed signs of recovery, that too shortly before death. Fearing the worst, he went and knocked on Sanjiv’s and Mrs. Das’s doors. He also called his wife to fetch the family doctor who lived down the street.
The entire household gathered at the foot of the bed where Das was lying. Each one of them could see that something out of the ordinary had happened. A tinge of color had crept into the normally sallow face of Das and growling noises were coming from his throat. He seemed clearly agitated. They felt that he was trying to say something to them.
The doctor after finishing his examination said, “Yes, his blood pressure has shot up. He is definitely agitated. I have given him some mild sedatives, which will make him sleep for two to three hours. When he wakes up give me a call and I will send my compounder with more sedatives to keep Das’s nerves calm. We will continue this medication for today. But, if the condition persists even tomorrow, we may have to shift him to a hospital.”
As the family members started to follow the doctor out of the room, a huge guttural sound emanated from Das’s throat. It shocked everybody and they all rushed to the bed. To their surprise they found that there was some small movement in Das’s mouth. As they looked on, dumbfounded, Das suddenly made a sound that sounded like ‘Ma…’ Then just as suddenly, his mouth returned to its usual expression of scowling as he dropped off into a sedative-induced sleep.
After the doctor left, the four of them gathered in the drawing room to talk about the day’s events and the future course of action.
Sanjiv said, “What was he trying to say? It sounded like ‘Ma’ to me. But I am not sure.”
Mrs. Das nodded, “I also heard something like that. What it can be?”
“Boudi1, I know Dada2 was very fond of his Ma3 . Maybe he was thinking of her,” Tarak said.
Sanjiv stood up and said, “Let me find a good photo of Grandmother. I will show it to him after he wakes up. It should make him happy.”
After two hours when Das woke up, he again started to show signs of agitation. Sanjiv went near the bed and showed him his grandmother’s photo. But Das closed his eyes shut to indicate that this was not what he wanted.
Sanjiv called the doctor immediately to apprise him of the developments. Soon after, the compounder came and injected the medicine. Das slowly went into a slumber.
The mother and son were now really perplexed.
Suddenly Sanjiv jumped up and said, “Oh, why I did not think of it before! Mother, I am sure now. Father wanted to say ‘Maya’.”
Maya was the daughter of Purushottam Das and a few years elder to Sanjiv. She had been a brilliant medical student and was the darling of her father. When she became a doctor, Das’s joy knew no bounds.
But all this turned topsy-turvy when Maya married her colleague who was not a Bengali. He belonged to a different religion too. Das was so incensed that he forbade Maya to enter the house. He also warned his wife and son not to contact her.
Slowly over the years the family lost touch with Maya.
Sanjiv found her telephone number in his diary and proceeded to call her.
Maya, who was residing in Kolkata, became very emotional on getting a call from her younger brother after so many years. She said that she and her husband would come within an hour.
When Maya arrived with her husband, Das was still under a sedative-induced sleep. So they decided to wait in the living room.
Sanjiv told Maya about the events of that morning, his father’s strange utterance and his reaction to Grandmother’s photo.
“You know, it is strange that father closes his eyes tight when he wants to be left alone or when some person whom he dislikes comes into his room. I doubt he can hear, as he doesn’t react to any of our questions.”
“But I think he really wants to see you. He should be very happy that you came,” Sanjiv continued.
Maya was overjoyed to be back in her paternal home after so many years. The thought of being forgiven by her father and coming back into the fold was making her very happy. She sat next to her mother and went on talking, feeling ebullient.
After sometime Tarak came and said that Das was awake but once again showing signs of restlessness.
Maya asked her husband to wait in the living room and said that it was better that she saw her father first. Sanjiv accompanied Maya into their father’s room.
Maya went near the bed and softly called her father. There was a slight expression of surprise in his eyes on seeing his daughter. But he immediately shut his eyes tight. No amount of pleading by Maya could make Das open his eyes. Finally Sanjiv led her out of the room. He told Tarak to fetch the compounder for injecting more sedatives.
In the living room the family gathered once again. The mood was now rather melancholy.
Maya’s husband after consoling her, came and sat near Sanjiv, who was feeling rather dejected.
“You see, I had always wanted to meet your father. I have heard from Maya that he was a very brave and adventure-loving person and had trekked extensively in the Himalayas and also conquered many peaks. She has told me that he was not afraid to roam in jungles in pursuit of his passion for wildlife photography. I have always been in awe of such people. It is very sad that I could not meet him when he was doing well. If only he had given me a chance to meet him, I would have convinced him to accept me into the family.”
He continued in fluent but slightly accented Bengali, “Maya always talks about her father and she recalls some of his adventures especially when we watch wildlife channels on TV. Only yesterday we were watching a wild-life programme. She laughed and remarked about how her father, a man who is not afraid of snakes and wild animals is scared to death of this …how do you say it in Bengali… I don’t remember the Bengali word for ‘spider’…”
Sanjiv’s mind was not fully concentrating, but he automatically replied, “Oh! Spider… it is maakarsaa…” and then exclaimed “Oh! My God!”
He jumped up from the sofa and ran towards his father’s room.
Entering the room he cast a glance on the ceiling above his father’s bed. There was a huge black widow spider on the ceiling.
He got up onto the bed with a broom and hit the spider. He then caught the lifeless body of the spider deftly, as it fell down, and threw it out of the window.
As he looked down at his father, he could see his eyes were once more peaceful. For a moment he also thought he saw a brief smile on his father’s face.
Author’s Personal Note
I am and will remain in morbid fear of spiders. I remember an incident when I was in Class VII. It was a History period and the then Headmaster was taking the class. I was usually a very attentive boy. But sometime during the class I noticed a big spider on the ceiling above me. My blood froze, and I sat, transfixed, unable to move and my fear very real. I did not hear when the HM asked me a question. The classmate sitting beside me nudged me sharply in the ribs and I came out of my trance. I found my HM standing beside me and shouting at me for dozing off. He asked me to stand on the bench, but I was scared because then I would be more close to that beastly spider. Seeing my reluctance the HM raised his cane. Trembling with fear, i pointed my finger toward the ceiling. My close friend sitting behind me understood my predicament, got up on the bench and threw his boot up at the spider, killing it instantly. Then he explained to the HM about my phobia and afterwards everybody had a good laugh at my expense.
1. Sister-in-law in Bengali Language
2. A term used in Bengali to address elderly males.