Category Archives: Fiction

The Sentenced: Part 4

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I remember we met… Antonspeak 

My beach holiday with Rebekah was amazing. For once, I had let my guard down and enjoyed the warm sunshine reflecting on the frothy waves.  I would sit for hours at a stretch, staring at the waves embrace the shore and then retreat hastily, just like a playful child whose hapless mother is trying to drag him to kindergarten on a busy Monday morning. In fact, I would do that exact same thing as a child.

My mother never tires of talking about how I made it very difficult for her to get to work in the mornings because I would stop to admire every dirt-smeared stone or a crawling bug on the way. I chuckle when I think how exasperating it must have been for my mum.

“Wait till you have kids of your own!”

My mum will always say, with a frown when she catches me laughing at her stories.

Little does she know that having kids is not on my list. I don’t think I can stand them! They are just too noisy, messy and too much of a bother! I am perfectly happy being kid-free. True, I do have to spend time around pesky children at times when I visit my old friends in different cities. It’s always good to catch up and I usually pretend I am thrilled to see their kids but that’s far from the truth. I know it just makes the parents happy, so why not?

Just last month, when I was away for a week visiting one of my friends from school, his daughters insisted I watch ‘Frozen’ with them! I was bored at their place and his wife’s cooking was tasteless, so I agreed to the movie and the day out. I could sleep in the movies, I thought. Contrary to what I thought, I was quite engrossed in the movie. It was a fun experience.

But that’s about how far I can stretch myself…. a day out with kids of friends or  neighbours, ones I just cannot avoid. I have no intention of having my own and I know that at some point, I will have to talk Rebekah out of this. Rebekah. She adores kids. I know she wants children of her own but I do not. And that’s that. I’d rather invest my time in my research than take some obnoxious three-year old on a piggyback ride. What a waste of one’s time!

Talking of kids, I have had some experiences with Maya which would best be forgotten.  Maya was not only child-like but also very childish in her attitudes and behavior. What do they say? Yes, seeing the world with rose-tinted glasses. She did just that. None was evil, none malicious, no one meant her any harm.

That is all fine, living in your own Utopia but when you try to drag others into your world, that’s when the problem arises. She refused to understand that people are essentially different, as are their tastes, likes and dislikes, dreams and aspirations. I did not wish to hurt Maya. In fact, I actually liked her quite a bit… in the beginning. She changed all that, with her nagging behaviour, unceasing complaints and her foolish notions of what love should be like.

It got so unbearable that I pretty much fled the place, I admit, before my duration of stay was officially over. I had to leave my work incomplete and earned a bad name for it.

“Anton, I love you!”

“I love you so much, Anton!” Her words were like a constant replay from a broken recorder.

Those words had started to annoy me, scare me, haunt me!

Love is understanding the other person’s needs, not expecting them to gel into the mental picture you have of them. What Maya thought love to be had nothing to do with love at all! It was an all-consuming, highly destructive, incurable obsession.  She was obsessed with me!

Had I got a whiff of that earlier, I would not have entertained her the very first time, when she requested me to participate in an event she was organizing. It was one of their celebration days, a holiday in their calendar. I remember the day, a Friday. My classes were  all done and since I had nothing to do at home, I decided to stay for a bit longer and finish pending work. I was distracted by the noise of shuffling feet right outside my door. For about five minutes. Thinking it must be a student trying to hand in a late assignment, I walked to the door, quietly turned the handle and pulled the door ajar.

She froze, her right hand suspended in mid-air. I realized that she was just about to knock at the very same moment. For a minute or so, I just stared, though it was rude. She was quite a vision dressed in a scarlet and gold sari that perfectly complimented her earthy skin tone. Tiny gold trinkets hung around her neck and clung to her ears. My eyes took in the red and golden bracelets that adorned her wrist as she fixed her hair with one hand. She looked exotic and the effect it had on me took me by surprise. She smiled and raised her hand again to shade her eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun. Her palms were decorated with bright red, intricate designs.The bracelets clinked musically, jolting me back to my senses. I smiled back.

“Err… Hello…” I uttered, racking my brains for her name, vaguely aware that I had seen her before. I have never been good at remembering names.

“Maya,” she supplied confidently, “We met at the Dean’s office.” I nodded.

“Of course, so nice to see you again, ” I said with gusto and then added, “You look very… festive. Is there some kind of celebration today?”

Her eyes lit up at once.

“We do!  We… The Fine Arts and Humanities Dept. got together to celebrate Diwali at the campus this evening. It starts in about two hours at the auditorium. Right next to the Convention Hall. We sent a generic email to all Departments but since you’re our guest and new to the place….”

She paused, I guessed for dramatic effect and to catch her breath.

Maya continued, “I thought of inviting you personally. Please do join us.”

I noticed how comfortable in her little speech she was, as if she knew exactly how she would string each word. Yet, it did not seem rehearsed.

“Thank you for the invite. I will just finish something and join you.” I answered politely.

“Great!”  She turned to go and, in her rush, immediately stumbled on the long folds of her saree. As a reflex, my arm shot out to prevent her fall and brushed against her slender arm.

She had already steadied herself.

“High heels are not a good match with saris,” she laughed, trying to regain her composure and I agreed.

However, I was watching her face. A reddish tinge had risen to her cheek bones and was spreading fast on the oval face. This is the second time I had seen her blush.

Did I have something to do with it? I remember wondering.

 

The Sentenced: part 3

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   The one who was 

Drip-drip. pitter-patter, drip-drip, pitter-patter. The sound of falling rain on the roof of the building creates such a soothing rhythm. It’s lulling me to sleep. I could have left for my quarters and the comfort of my bed hours ago but I decided to stay back. The university is going to celebrate its Centenary next year and as the Dean, I have a lot to take care of. However, I just cannot focus. Here, I am now, at my office, sitting at my table and staring at the computer screen. The bluish light begins to hurt my eyes. I turn it off and saunter over to the lone window behind my table.

As I stare at the falling rain, my eyes fill with tears. I am only aware of it when I feel the wetness on my cheeks. Instead of brushing them away, I let them fall. The tears are a tribute to the one I loved, the girl who loved to watch the rain. For hours. She is no more. Maya.

When I first met Maya after her preliminary interview, I had noticed the magic in her easy, effortless smile. As she shook hands with me, the touch of her hand on mine was a soft, warm sensation and made me break out into a boyish grin. I was surprised. I am not one to smile easily. Especially, when I am about to interview a hopeful applicant. Usually, it’s a curt nod in my nod… may be just a hint of a smile I am quite against becoming too pally with the people who work under me. In fact, I am known as a stern task-master among the staff. It’s not that I am not fair or unreasonable, But it is a veneer that I have to don and it is appropriate to my status and position at the University.

Maya came in like a whirlwind, like a gushing river in the monsoon, eager to overflow its banks and sweep everything away in its path. She was almost half my age but that did not stop me from falling in love with her, her entire being, the sensuous woman that she was. She was not a breathtaking beauty, but her smile was benign. She had a certain generosity in her which is hard to come by in today’s world, a kindness that emanates from empathy and a willingness to forgive the entire world for its sins.

Maya did not belong to this world, she belonged in a world which would understand her gentleness, her talent at touching hearts and turning complete strangers into friends. When she came into my life, she seemed very carefree, happy-go-lucky… like  a pretty, little bird that has just been given the permission to fly out of its nest and explore the endless, blue sky. She had just begun to spread her wings, ready to take flight, when the unthinkable happened. I remember warning her a couple of times that she shared too much of her soul with others. She was too much of a giver. Maya would just laugh it off. She probably believed she was on a mission to heal the damaged on this earth. And see where it led her to! She had to pay for her folly with her life, a budding, vibrant life of which she had just seen twenty-six years! His betrayal killed her, an unworthy person who neither deserved her heart nor her compassion.

Maya loved a man who would not love her back, ever. People here say she died of a broken heart but I call it a murder. Her foolish love for Anton murdered her and we were all witness to that!

As I said, I loved Maya, in spite of our age difference, the positions we held at the University, in spite of the fact that she looked up to me as a mentor, a father figure. After my divorce five years back, I took up this role and have always been comfortable living my life in comfortable seclusion, immersing myself in my books and enjoying the company of my beloved German shepherd, Buzzo. I did not really crave for human company. Maya changed all that.

The rain outside does not show any signs of abating. Restless, I pour a cup of cold water down my throat. It does not help! A scream is building up inside my chest, yearning to get out. I clench my fists as my mind takes me back to the morning when, sitting at this very same table, I was glancing through the email I had received from the Italian Professor. I liked his profile immediately, His credentials and accolades hinted that he was an ambitious achiever. I had no hesitation in inviting him over for a few months.

He seemed to be a gentleman with a pleasant disposition, much younger than I was and spoke with a heavy accent. I remember welcoming him and showing him around the first time we met. I was quite impressed by all the background information he had gathered and the research he had done prior to joining us. I sensed a spark in him which, coupled with his sense of humour must have made him quite irresistible…. to Maya, at least.

It was a classic case of opposites attract. Maya, a young, exuberant assistant lecturer who loved Literature and Art. She loved to lose herself in the pages of the books that she read and always tried to seek others who would participate alongside her in her magical journeys. She believed in people and in their words. Foolish, really.

I could see that they had befriended each other in a matter of days. Most of the staff members were all praise for the foreigner, about how polite and helpful he was and lauded his vast reserves of knowledge in not only Mathematics and the Sciences but also Literature and world cultures. He was reticent about his personal affairs but not unfriendly, quiet but not unpleasant.

Thinking back, this might be the very place where they had first seen each other. My office. As Anton sat before me, discussing about how he would like to conduct a seminar about the logical properties of random graphs, I suddenly recalled that he had received the Young Researcher Award at his university last year and questioned him about it. I noticed he loved to talk about himself, though he tried his best not to sound pompous. As his boastfulness was effectively masked by his witty repertoire, I was quite happy listening to him. However, with my worldly knowledge and experience, I knew that I would not trust him with a lot.

Anyway, as I listened and nodded, I heard two loud knocks on the polished wood of my door and, before I could reply, Maya barged in.  All other staff members including the senior most would have thought twice before doing this but not Maya. Maya had somehow seen through my stern facade and established that she would remain her exuberant, playful self with me. May be she knew I would let her.

So in dashed Maya, beaming as usual. I brought on a severe look and shook my head from side to side in disapproval, but my eyes were indulgent and Maya saw through it at once.

“Mr Shekhawat, you know what I was thinking… about independent scholarly work to support….”

I raised my right hand in a mock serious manner, asking her to stop and gestured towards the foreigner.

“This is Professor Antonio Palazzolli from Italy,” I said with a tiny smile, “he has joined the Math Dept. as visiting Faculty and will be staying and working at our University for a few months…”

Maya stopped short and turned to face the Professor. He stood up politely.

“Professor, this is Maya, from the Department of English. A promising, young associate lecturer.” I smiled at Maya but she was not looking at me.

Anton moved up a few paces and extended his hand. “Nice meeting you,” he greeted with a smile and a slight tilt of his head.

I expected her to reciprocate but she seemed to be at a sudden loss for words which was not like her at all. He was still standing with his hand extended when she suddenly blurted out in a voice which was unnecessarily loud, “I so hate Math!”

Taken aback, I was about to chide Maya gently for her uncharacteristic rudeness when Anton gave a solemn nod.

“Oh, I often get that from beautiful women,” he chuckled pleasantly.

I noticed his amused eyes were still on Maya. I also noticed the faint blush creeping up her neck.

 

The Sentenced:Part 2

 

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Photo by Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush on Pexels.com

 

Antonspeak 

It is midnight. I have slept for less than an hour. I had just come to bed after working through a very difficult formula and I remember how proud I was of myself! And with a good reason, too. This had been bothering me for the last couple of days and I could finally nail the mind-boggling question. No one in my Department has been able to solve it, yet! Smiling and smug, I tried to wake up Rebekah but she is sleeping like a log. She usually leaves for work early, (yes, seven thirty in the morning is pretty early for me) which means I will get to share the news only when I see her after work. She’ll be glad, she does dote on me, after all!

To say that Rebekah is beautiful would be an understatement. Her looks are extraordinarily attractive, to be honest. A perfect body, coupled with ravishing Middle Eastern facial features; she would be a prize catch for any man any day! And yet, here she is, for me, laying on my bed, her hair framing her oval face, her porcelain skin so delicate!  She is a trophy to be shown-off, put on display, polished and show-cased. I am quite happy doing that.

It’s also very interesting, the way Rebekah and I got together. But that can wait. I need to sleep. My eyelids are heavy, I spent too many hours grinding my brain for the answer to that formula.

But I was sleeping! What made me wake up so suddenly? It was a strange sensation… not a dream, really… but strange! It was like a voice… a hushed, almost inaudible voice. What was it saying? I can’t recall but I think I heard my name… twice. I know that voice very well.. I recognized it at once.

Darn that email! I am not going to lie, I was stunned after I read it…I mean, who would have.. I never would have believed….Maya is…… was so young! And darn that Dean! Why did he have to send an email to me? Like I was responsible or something… It’s been almost a year that I have been gone from there. That is a phase of my life that’s over, That quaint, old-world town where life revolves around one University… the one I was a guest lecturer at, the people who belonged to another world, another culture but still they did their best to accept me as their own, that tiny, old house I had rented which overlooked the sea… and Maya.

It’s like  a chapter of a book that I have already read and moved on to the next, with no wish to re-read or recall any part of it.

I touch Rebekah’s bare shoulders. She shivers a little, my hands are cold. She smiles in her sleep, she knows it’s me. I love to stare at her sleeping form, so supple, so alluring.
Something stirs inside me and I feel the urge to wake her up, with a kiss. I know she would be happy to oblige, to satisfy my needs even though she needs her sleep, She adores me no end.  That is what she is here for, isn’t she? But I drop the idea, I am too tired as it is.

And she is brilliant too, brilliant in every other way. She is just thirty but when I look at all that she has accomplished by now, am quite awed. Not that I have told her though, she hears enough praise for her beauty without me having to add to it. What’s the best part is that she gives me everything I need from her without any hesitation.

I like this girl, not just because of her looks and intelligence, I admire her spirit and independent streak. She is quite the diva and her eyes are so deep, it seems you can almost look down into her soul….

Soul…. ‘Soul mates’ ‘together for all eternity!’ All that useless ramble. And she was into it, too deeply into it. Maya was the most unrealistic, impractical person I have ever known! It got unbearable, so unbearable that…

Anyway, she is dead and gone. May her soul (it’s her favorite word) rest in peace. I need to rest too or I would have a hard time focusing on all my colleague’s jealous faces tomorrow. I just hope no one else was able to solve it tonight, as I did. I can’t help but smile..

Maya had a lovely smile, filled with wonder, almost child- like.

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She is at it again. ‘Love’, ‘soul connection!’ Dear Lord! She gets so annoying at times! Besides, I was working for this very important seminar I have to speak at, next month! She does not even understand the gravity of the situation! Too immature…. Young, yes, but too immature!

Her arms wrap around my neck and she pulls me towards her a little. My head jerks back slightly and I sigh resignedly but I smile as I look up into that smiling face. I plan to finish as much as I can at the University, there’s not much hope of getting it done with her around.

“See for yourself! I always knew this was true…” Gushing, she thrusts her phone under my nose. I have no choice  but to look at it. I read the heading: ‘Twin Flames and their Destinies.’ I have no clue what it’s about, but looking at the dancing light in her eyes, I know she is bursting to tell me.

“What is this?” My voice is laced with bitterness, I just want to get on with my project.

“You and I! Twin flames….. How can you not remember? I told you about this article last week….” Her nostrils flare a bit. “You always forget all that I say!” She accuses, drawing away and stomping over to the open window. It’s still quite early and the light outside seems soft, cleansed. The gentle breeze is playing through her locks now, just as its playing among the thick, green foliage of the tress outside. I can hear the soft murmur of the leaves.

I am ready with a biting retort but decide it’s not necessary. Instead, I walk over to her and press my body against hers. I feel the tremor that I cause in her. Her breathing is faster, I can tell. I grin as I thrust my face in her inky black, shoulder length hair. She smells of wild flowers, a bit floral, a bit mysterious…

“Maya?” I whisper, breathing on her collar bone. It causes a tingle and from experience, I know most women love it. Maya is no different. She giggles like a little girl, all traces of anger gone in a moment. This is something that I really love about her, the sound of her laughter…. It’s almost musical. She turns to face me.

“Do you love me?” She asks, for the umpteenth time. The look in her eyes intensifies. I turn away, flustered.

“Say you love me, Anton!” Her petulant lips add to her exaggerated frown. Everything about her is so dramatic, it’s almost comical. I choose to remain silent, knowing what is about to come next. And I am right. In a few seconds, those black eyes fill with tears and the tip of her nose turns reddish. Such an adorable picture of innocent anger. I open my arms and she nestles her head on my chest. Sometimes I wonder whether this woman’s brain is any different from a thirteen year old’s.

“I hate you!” She whispers in mock ferocity.

I nod silently as she gazes up, her eyes smiling now,  eager, hungry. Her lips upturned. Her lips are always a soft shade of pink. I can see the colour rising to her cheekbones. I wink knowingly as she draws closer, her eyes still open, still staring, brimming with trust, staring at my face. I want her to close her eyes! Her eyes are transforming…. into the eyes of a… a dead body. It’s a horrible stare, still, unblinking! I hate those eyes!

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The next thing I know is I am soaking with sweat My t-shirt is clinging to my torso and I am heaving. I can hear Rebekah’s anxious voice, she is asking if I am alright. I don’t know, my mind is disoriented. I do not feel strong enough to move my limbs. What happened?

I was in that cottage, with Maya. It was a dream. I can now see Rebekah running out of the room and returning with a bottle of water. The bottle is chilled and the tiny droplets are clinging to the sides for dear life. Just how I like it. Rebekah does not like chilled water. She gets a throat infection immediately.

I never noticed if Maya drank chilled water.

Hell, what am I thinking! She is dead! DEAD!

I pull Rebekah into a fierce embrace. She is frightened, her heart is racing but she comforts me just like my mom would, perhaps. I notice that Rebekah’ s fingernails are painted dark brown or black. I can’t tell in the low light. I hate black. Black, to me, is the colour of mourning.

Is Maya’s family still mourning her loss? The email did not mention..

(To be continued)

The Revelation

What was going on here! In my house? The house that had become home after I stepped in here with my newly-wed husband… twenty-three years back, as a shy, bashful bride. So many dreams, so many memories! The shattered hopes, the fulfilled wishes… birth of my children, as we graduated from a care-free couple to nervous parents.

Even now, I can close my eyes and clearly see my two-year old tumbling tot of a son hiding behind the couch. In a bold, mindless effort, he is trying his best to grab some black, tiny ants that are crawling on the floor and putting them in his mouth! I can see my younger self running out of the kitchen and scooping him up in my eager arms.The images are crystal clear in my mind….
“Silly child!” I hear myself cry out anxiously. “You’ll get bitten!”
I remember my little boy Roop looking utterly bewildered as I raved on, failing to understand why his mom had stopped him from sampling such a delicious-looking snack.

I close my eyes again and see my seven-year old Mugdha, my pretty, little girl sitting on a chair, looking forlorn. Her cherubic face devoid of a smile, her eyes vacant. Nothing ever escapes a mother’s eyes and her sadness bothers me. What could be wrong! I see myself kneeling beside her.

“Mugdha! Is your tummy hurting again, love?”
A thousand worries torture me in the span of a second. It must be the chickpeas I cooked last night! Why did I have to make them so spicy? My little one is in pain because of me! I am a terrible mother! I keep admonishing myself as I look around for the bottle of antacid. My daughter just sighs and as she looks at me, tears start rolling down her cheeks. I can hear my heart breaking. I pull her in my arms.

“What’s wrong, baby? Tell me! Mommy will fix it for you!” I try to sound hopeful.

Mugdha shakes her head vigorously.

“You can’t mamma!” her voice quivers with a profound sadness.

Her pain chokes me, I am about to cry too but I scold myself. I can’t do that! I am mom! I just hold my sobbing child in my arms, trying to tell her that it’s going to be alright. After an hour and much coaxing, she calms down just enough to tell me that Hardik likes her friend Ramyaa more than her… she saw the two sharing a piece of chocolate cake during lunch and she had not been invited to join the party.

“Hardik shared his new box of crayons with Ramyaa, but not me!” her petal-like lips quiver with the hint of a huge sob that is building inside her.
“So he is Ramyaa’s boyfriend mamma! I wanted him to be MY boyfriend!”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry! I remember meeting her school friends at her birthday party last month. Ramyaa and Hardik were among them. I hold my daughter close as she experiences her first heartbreak in her seven-year-old life. I want to tell her that there will be more to come but refrain from it.

Oh, I need to stop! I am day-dreaming again! I stepped out on the balcony, gazing at the dark sky. The boom of thunder brought me back from my reverie. I smiled.They grow up so fast!

Roop joined a tech company last summer. He eats out on most nights and hardly has a minute to stop by and say hello to mamma. Mugdha is even more beautiful than I thought she would be. A chirpy nineteen year old who prefers to share her conquests and heartbreaks with friends now, rather than her mamma.

I am not complaining. I am very proud and happy with both my children. It’s just that for a few days now, it seems like I have vanished from their world. I feel disoriented, I cannot understand what is going on. Recently, I have noticed that when I enter our bedroom at night, my husband stares blankly at the television. I have tried making conversation, running my fingers through his thinning hair which always relaxes him but he seems not to notice. On many a night, I have seen him coming home very late, long after the children have retired for the night. I want to request him to spend time with the kids, once in a while.

The clock on our bedroom wall chimed the hour. Ten o’ clock. It was getting late enough to be worried. I stepped onto the balcony and peered down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lookingng for a shelter, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back to see Mugdha stepping into the hall and opening the door for my husband to enter.

“Dad! What’s wrong!” she screamed, her face pale in the dim light.

As I ran towards the door, I could see why. My husband seemed to have fainted. He was being supported on both sides by my son and a friend of his. They laid him down carefully on the sofa. I grabbed Roop’s hand:
“Roop! What happened to your father? Roop!!” But my son was on his phone making fervent calls to Dr Banerjee.

“Please! Yes, he seems to have collapsed.” His voice sounded tearful. He is only twenty-two, after all.
“No, not driving. He was at the market. My friend happened to see him, lucky for us! About an hour ago… yes, home… yes, please make it fast!”

“Will someone please tell me what is going on?!!”

The sound of my desperate cry scared me. It must have scared my children too, because Mugdha, who was wiping her father’s face with a wet towel, stopped suddenly and looked around the room. Her brother had a strange look in his eyes. He quickly stepped closer and hugged his sister. Mugdha was sobbing. I could see my son fighting back his tears.

“It will be okay, Maddie! The doctor is already on his way. Dad will be fine. Did you see him taking his blood pressure pill this morning?”

Blood pressure pills! My husband! Since when! Why won’t anybody talk to me! My exasperation and confusion were fast being replaced by a mad, frenzied anger. I tried to grab my son by his shoulder:
“Why are you keeping secrets from me? What is going on? Since when has your father been unwell? Tell me, Roop!”

He was silent. My fury knew no bounds and I slapped him viciously. My son looked up at me. His eyes were oddly empty.

The doorbell rang and Dr Banerjee was soon examining my husband who had recovered a bit and was sitting up on the couch. He had his arms around our children as they sat, one on each side of him. He was patting Mugdha gently as she kept sobbing in his shoulder. I was crying too, though noiselessly.

Dr Banerjee looked grave.

“Did you say that everything turned dark all of a sudden?” He looked at my husband. “Your blood pressure has shot through the roof, have you been taking the medication I gave you?”

So the doctor knew as well! Only, I had been kept in the dark! But why!

My husband looked guilty.

“Mr. Gupta, I understand. But you have to think about your children, too!” the doctor reproached him gently,  “You cannot be so irresponsible. If you lose hope, what can we expect from them?”

He was pointing to where my children stood, a pitiful picture of hopelessness and grief. Even Dr Banerjee was talking about not losing hope! What was this unforeseen tragedy that had overwhelmed my entire family, of which I still knew nothing!

I tried to guess. Had my husband lost his job? But then, he was getting ready to retire in a year or two —- a voluntary retirement. He had saved enough for our rainy days and he wanted to travel the world with us. Our favourite family argument was whether it would be Europe or the Caribbean. My husband always sided with Mugdha, so I supported my son and the fight would end with happy discussions of golden beaches and snow-capped mountains over plates of piping hot ‘samosas’.

I knew a lost job would not cause my husband’s blood pressure to skyrocket. What could be so wrong? Was any of my children sick? May be they were hiding it from me because I became easily anxious when it came to my children.

I tried to jog my memory… no, nothing recently. Except for a viral fever that weakened Roop for a few days but that was three months back. Mugdha threw up last week in the wee hours of the morning but I know that was because of all the street food she keeps eating with her friends. I tried talking to her the next morning but she did not reply. Later, that evening, when questioned by her dad she did confirm my suspicions about the junk food.

It did pinch me a little when my daughter confided in her father but not in me. I had noticed a very sudden change in both my children’s behaviour. They seemed to have become very close to their father, all of a sudden. As their mother, I did feel very happy with that, of course, but there was no need to ignore me completely! Something was wrong and I was kept in the dark about it. What did the three of them think, that I was not strong enough to handle it?

Frustration and panic shot through me like a heady cocktail. The doctor had finished writing out a prescription and as he was getting ready to leave with a few words of advice, I stepped closer to the door.

I begged him, “Please, doctor! Please tell me what is wrong! What have they been hiding from me? Is any of them in danger? Is anyone sick? Please, can you tell me!!?” I was kneeling on the floor now, my face hidden in my hands, terrified of an unseen omen that seemed to loom over my loved ones.

Dr Banerjee stopped, a sigh escaping his heaving chest. He turned around and spoke slowly in a heavy voice, but not to me.

“How long has it been, Ashok? Two months?”

My daughter answered for her father:
“A month and eighteen days,” she was trying to hide the emotions that almost made her choke, “and it’s getting worse, doctor. I can’t take it anymore!”

My husband was patting her head again, as she cried miserably, making no effort to hide her sobs this time. Her father was dabbing his eyes with the wet towel that was being used as a compress before. My son just stood behind them, head bowed, the ghostly shadow of misery clouding his otherwise cheerful features.

I had stopped crying. Puzzled, I was looking from one grief-stricken face to another, waiting for a clue to unveil this horrible mystery. I thought vaguely of a horror movie that I has watched years ago. Like a statue, I sat, watching in dismay, as one terrifying incident led to another and silently prayed for the movie to end.

“I know she is here, dad. I know she is! I know she sees, she hears us…. I am telling you.. I can sense her presence even now!” My daughter blurted out.

Who is this ‘she?’ Is she talking about me? Of course I can see them, hear them. It’s a different matter that they are behaving strangely around me, as if they didn’t even know that I co-exist under the same roof.

A silly thought crossed my mind. Was it possible that this was part of some ‘fun’ reality show that my family had participated in and the challenge was that they could not tell me about it? What if they had roped in the doctor too? I waited expectantly for a minute or two, almost hoping for the camera crew and the host of the show to enter the room, laughing, and my loved ones joining in the laughter. Then they would all crown me as the M TV “Bakri’ (scapegoat) or something .

Nevertheless, I was livid. What is the world coming to? Was this some kind of ‘Torture your Mom’ contest! And how could my husband allow such a cruel prank!

But the sad scenes in front of me were still continuing. Ashok, my husband, was talking again.

“Never for a minute… so full of life… so happy, healthy…” he seemed incoherent and at a loss for words. “Her children, her pride… she had such hopes for them, such dreams…”

The doctor, who was standing close to me was muttering to himself, “Most unfortunate! Most unfortunate!” He was shaking his head gravely as he muttered those two words.

A light was dawning on me from somewhere. So it was I who was sick. Must be something very serious which is why they had kept it undisclosed. They did not want to get me worried and nervous. What could it be? Alzheimer’s? I recalled sudden bouts of darkness and confusion when I seemed to have forgotten what I was about to do or why I was sitting on the park bench or how to turn the TV on. It was extremely frustrating but now I felt sure that with such a loving family, I would surely regain my lost memory. I looked at my children’s faces. I would never forget them, no matter what befell me!

“Mamma!! She was my hero!” My son voiced so softly that I had to strain my ears to hear.

Did he say I WAS his hero? Strange!

“I never really told her how much she meant to me! I can’t come to terms with her leaving us, with her untimely death!”

What! What did he just say! I tried to clutch at the air… something, anything, to prevent my knees from buckling! No! Impossible! It’s a nightmare, a nightmare! I will wake up any minute… this can’t be!

I could hear a wail, someone was in terrible pain…. somewhere…. it was a terrible, heart-rending, ear-splitting scream. Someone needed help.

“Please stop! Stop!” I begged but the screaming went on and on. It was making me nauseous, I was falling. It was dark, very dark, not a speck of light in sight.

The screaming grew louder in my ears. I realized it was I who was screaming… with grief, with rage, with disbelief! I was only forty-six! My children needed me! My husband didn’t know them as well as I did! Ashok, my companion of so many years! He had never learned how to match his shirt with a correct pair of trousers and what shoes to wear to work. This was wrong! Unfair!

Unable to stop the terrible wail,  I clasped both palms over my mouth. But it was sounding in my head now… my chest was hurting… I was surely going to have a heart attack and I was all alone! No! I was dead! Gone… non-existent!

I was falling faster now, I felt dizzy. The suffocating darkness and the terrible scream engulfed me. I slipped into oblivion.

The sound of a beautiful melody revived my senses. I sat up. Where was I? This looked like a garden,  there were fragrant blossoms everywhere. I saw someone walking towards me. My Grandpa! I was so happy to see him again! He was the same old man… tall, with glistening white hair and jolly, twinkling eyes. I ran to him like a ten year old! I felt amazingly light.

“Gramps!” I ran into his outstretched arms. “Is that you? Really? But you died!” I said and immediately regretted my unscrupulous words. Gramps was laughing.

“So did you. That’s why I am here to see you now.”

“But Gramps! It’s unfair! I need more time! Why me!!”

Gramps remained silent but an understanding smile hung on his lips. The haunting melody was still playing. It was filling me with an undefinable feeling of love, hope and peace… like the sun filling up a dark and gloomy sky, dispelling the grey clouds of doom.

“I wanted to see my daughter receive her first job offer. I wanted to meet my son’s girlfriend…”

I knew he had a girlfriend. He never told me but I knew. Mothers always know.

“Ashok is so forgetful! He always forgets to take his medications on time!” Gramps put his arm around me.

“Will I never see my family again?” I wanted to sob but something in this place had a very soothing effect on my nerves… the music… the fragrance… Gramps’ kind smile…

“Who says you can’t?”

I was walking down the winding garden path with him now. “Is this heaven?” I asked. Gramps winked at me merrily.

“It’s a party place where we catch up with our family and old friends.” He laughed.

Epilogue

Ashok grunted in his sleep. I was holding his hand while he lay in our bed.

“I am scared. They are still young. How will I…..” He muttered in his sleep. I placed a hand over his heart.

Ashok rolled over and settled into a peaceful slumber.

My eyes were moist but somehow I knew he would be alright. The soft, melodious music was filling my ears again. I stole a loving glance at my sleeping husband and turned away.

“In your heart… always!” I whispered.

It was a promise I knew I would always abide by, transcending the barriers of life and death.