Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Don't let me die...

"Puchu...I am not feeling well.", Nisha dumped her handbag on the couch and sat down on the arm of his chair.
"Must be the food we had in China Haus last night", Pushkar didnt take his eyes off the editorial in Economic times.
" No...its not that. I have constantly been having this giddy feeling. And today after lunch, I suddenly couldn't see anything. Everything was dark for about...hmm..5 seconds maybe. Freaked me out totally..."
Pushkar carefully folded the paper and put it away. A deep frown was burrowing into his forehead. Nisha was watching him with asking eyes.
He smiled..."Dont worry...guess its time to see the doctor..."


Dr. Mehta was in his office. The last patient had been a psychosomatic guy in his 60's who kept concocting strange symptoms and demanding stranger medicines. Dr Mehta had scribbled all possible placebos he could think of in his scrawny writing on the prescription. And just to make sure that the guy doesnt return, he had charged him a very hefty fee.
He buzzed the receptionist to usher in the next patient. He took off his spectacles and rubbed his temples with his weary fingers.
Nisha peeped in with a very nervous look "Good morning doctor"
A broad smile spread across his face. A doctor's smile.


"Hello...Rajesh...I need you to do a MRI for patient no #102. And send me the report by this evening. Yeah..on the way there."
Rajesh Kumar Tripathi put down the receiver. Life in the MRI and CT scan department was extremely graphic. He loved the fact that he could read people's minds.
He smiled at his own pun and got up from his seat. Patient 102 would be just on his way. Or maybe...it wasn't a his. It could be a her...a beautiful single girl in her 20s. Pushing his luck a bit too far...she could be from UP...maybe Allahabad..he gave himself 15% chances that she was a Brahmin....
"Excuse me...I was scheduled to get a MRI done now..."
He mentally scratched out number 102 from his list. Maybe 103 would be 'the one'.
Silently he escorted Nisha to the inner chamber for the scan.


The lights in the pathology department were off ,save for one room. Ishani Khan was poring over the slides through the microscope. She had to send the results to Dr. Mehta before she left. She was concentrating hard..trying to block the distress signals that her stomach was sending her. The very thought of having a pizza out of a carton, surrounded by the little red-capped bottles with samples of body fluids and body wastes alike was so unappetising. Just two more slides and then she would be done.
"Dr.Mehta...yeah Ishani here. I just checked the slides. Its malignant. No Dr. Mehta...there is no element of doubt. Its a case that even an intern would identify.
Okay Dr. Mehta..have a great evening."
The final light in the department went out.


"But Dr.Mehta ....its very clear. The tumor is so big...we have to operate immediately. In fact, I am shocked that she didn't show any symptoms before. Its really weird."
"Dr. Ryan...isn't there any other way out ? I mean...we have seen cases like this before and the chances of the patient recovering from the operation are very low.
What..what chances would you give her?"
"See Dr. Mehta...going by the years of experience that you have had with such cases...I dont think you need my opinion. But I would say...without the operation, she has about a month. With the operation, maybe about a year or so.
"But what if..during the operation...."
"Its all a game of dice..."


"Okay Pucchu....what is the doctor's verdict? Listen...I am a strong person...I can take it....tell it to me"
"Its going to an operation...on next Saturday..thats 15th I guess...a major operation.....but nothing to worry"
"Oh...I see.....is it a hammoraege ?"
"No..its a tumor."
Nisha turned away from Pushkar and moved towards the open window. She didnt know if it was the cold wind or the word 'tumor' that sent the chills down her spine


"What is it Pucchu?"
"Its nothing dear...just a document which says that I take responsibility for whatever happens in the operation...a responsibility that I take as your husband. Just a formality..."
Pushkar signed on the dotted line. It was not the first time that he was taking responsiblity for somebody else's life. And yet he couldn't get himself to do it.


Dr. Mehta put on his gown. He scrubbed his hands one last time and put on the gloves. The nurse holding out the gloves was avoiding all eye contact with him.
He was a much revered and feared figure at the hospital.
Nisha looked very frail in the hospital clothes. The anastheisist was just explaining to Nisha how it is to be under anasthesia when Dr. Mehta walked in. Dr. Ryan was already there in the operation theater.
"Okay? So you clear ? Alright then...here we go...just the prick of a needle."
The anasthesia was fast closing Nisha's eyes. All she could see were blobs of colours around her..in a hazy blur.
Just before she closed her eyes..she held onto Dr. Mehta's sleeve.
"Don't let me die", she whispered. And then she was still...the rhythmic breathing the only sign of life in her.


The red bulb outside the operation theater went out. Dr. Ryan walked out, followed by the anasthesist and the intern assisting at the operation. The frustration was writ large over the intern's face...while Dr. Ryan's face was a hardened mask. Years of surgical practice had set his features into an impassive mould. Inside the operation theater, the nurse was trying to go about her job in her usual manner. But it was difficult for her...she had never seen Dr. Mehta this way.
Dr. Mehta was holding onto the pale hand sticking out from under the sheet...the only part of the body exposed to the outside world...pale and lifeless.
He was saying over and over again "Iam sorry I couldn't save you Nisha...but I tried.....I didnt want to let you die."

Dr. Pushkar Mehta (fondly called Pucchu by his family) had failed to save his most difficult patient...his wife.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Rehan's 12th birthday party...

I have known Rehan Kamat since 17 years. How we met is a very interesting incident that happened in the KG-1 classroom of Bal Mandir Primary school. Rehan was opening his tiffin-box when I noticed that he had strawberry cream-filled waffers inside. I absolutely adored them. Mine had the same old chapati-with-ghee-and-sugar, carefully rolled and packed in a tissue. Mission 'Flick-the-waffer' germinated in my mind...and I raced across the room. Just when I was about to scoop it out of his tiffin-box, Rehan looked at me with his big solemn eyes and said "Can we exchange our tiffins? I love chapati..but Mamma has no time to make it".

We were the best of friends in our primary school days. The first 15 minutes of classes would find us both kneeling down in the corridor, making faces at each other-habitual latecomers. The interval bell saw us transforming into a twin-headed torpedo which ran amok in the playground, knocking down the unsuspecting kids, finally transforming back into our human forms in the principal's office. We always considered it our duty to give the teacher a good 100-metre run before confirming our bottoms to the benches. After school, we would stay back to play on the see-saws and swings, just the two of us. Our favourite game was Vikram and Betal..I would climb the neem tree near our school and hang upside down with my tongue out and my hair loose. Rehan would then take me on his back, a la king Vikram with the ghost Betal, and I would then have to escape before he dumped me in the nearest puddle.
The evening sky would find two silhouttes returning home - the bags slung across their shoulders, the uniforms covered with a melange of colours, the occasional wound conspicious by the handkerchief tied around it.

Rehan's mother worked in the bank of India. His father was an Assistant Engineer in the Electricity department. They were out to work from morning to late evening. Probably that is why Rehan came up with the "Mummy-Papa" game where I would alternately play Rehan's Mummy or Papa and pamper him. My barbies would be twisted at all possible angles and turned into toy scooters which I would then present to Rehan, who was my child. I would wash his hair under the garden-tap, wipe it with the soft fluffy doormat (which was our substitute for a turkish towel) and comb it with my Barbie comb.

And then one day Rehan's parents came to my house. It was in our 5th standard.
Rehan and I were playing with my new set of cards in my room. I could hear the voices from the other room. They were shifting to a new house. Rehan's dad had been transferred to a new place. They had already enrolled Rehan in St. Joseph's High school which was closer to their new house. I asked Rehan if it meant that we would never play together again. He threw the cards at my face and ran away. Standing at the door he looked back and said "You are a stupid Neeli". He always called me Neeli.

I didn't go to see Rehan off when they left their house. Things weren't the same at school too. It wasn't really much fun being a single-headed torpedo and knocking down the other kids. The other kids found Vikram and Betal very tacky. So after being by myself for about a month or so, I started noticing that there were other kids in class. Playing kitty-party and home-home with the other girls wasn't half as much fun. But it would do. I missed Rehan terribly.

The next time we met was at Mehul's birthday party. Rehan wasn't his usual self at all. He was very silent and gave monosyllabic answers when I questioned him about his new school and friends. He even refused to join in in the game of passing-the-parcel and sat all by himself, staring at the cake. We met quite a few times over birthday parties. Me, with my group of new friends and Rehan with his sole friend - the half-eaten birthday cake.

He would call me up sometimes. I dont remember when..but somewhere down the line the monosyllabic answers changed to words and the words changed to sentences. He would talk about a new friend of his...Soloman. Soloman was an Israeli. His dad had been to India and fallen in love with the country. So he had shifted to India. He stayed close to Rehan's house. I conjured up an image of Soloman in my mind - Blond hair, fair skin, lips redder than the red poster colour and blue eyes. When I told the same to Rehan, he laughed "You are a dumb Neeli...Israelis have dark hair and dark eyes. He looks almost Indian".

Yes...I was jealous. Rehan was my first friend and the best friend I ever had. And now all he talked about was some dumb Israeli guy who probably didn't even know how to catch dragonflies and tie their tails with a string. I wanted to meet Soloman and push him in the nearest puddle on his oh-so-fair Israeli face. But I never got a chance to meet him.

10th January...1996...I still remember the date. Rehan called me up to invite me for his birthday party. My first question - "Will Soloman be there?". "Of course Neeli..he is my besss"...I banged the receiver down.
There were a thousand questions in my mind...was he a better friend..did he run faster than I ? Did he get better things in his tiffin box ?
I was very excited about meeting him and a trifle scared too. What if he was this school bully type character who could push me down with his index finger ?

16th January...Rehan's birthday. I was wearing my best dress..the pink one with the Snoopy-face print and "Am I not cute" written under it. Rehan's mom welcomed me in with a quick hug. She was asking me about how everyone at home was...but I wasnt listening. My eyes were scanning the twenty-odd faces for a Israeli face which looked almost Indian. Nah...he hadn't come. I sat down near the TV..watching Top Cat on Cartoon Network. Aunty brought in the cake and put in on the table. Chocolate....Rehan loved chocolate flavour. I turned back to Top Cat.

There was a tap on my shoulder. It was Rehan. "Hi Neeli...I want you to meet somebody over here. This is Soloman...my best friend. and Soloman..this is Neeli..my..well..'bestest' friend. You know Soloman...she thought you had yellow hair and blue eyes. See Neeli...his eyes are black. and his hair too. And he plays football so well. Well..we have stopped playing Vikram and Betal now...its for small kids. And we have kind of grown up now !!"

And then Rehan went on telling Soloman all about me. About how I would knock down a whole group of 4 or 5 kids on the playground, about how quickly I would climb the tress to play Betal. He actually called me his 'bestest' friend.
Well..things were going on fine....except for one thing.
There was no Soloman

(Rehan Kamat was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The doctors said that it was in his genes. Maybe lack of attention and loneliness had triggered it off. Symptoms - Silent spells, hallucinations. After two suicide attempts, he was admitted to the Guardian Angel's school for the mentally ill. My 'bestest' friend Rehan has been there for the past 7 years)

Monday, January 16, 2006

Krishna - Part II

"Om Shanti Shanti"
The words escaped out of Amma's lips as she dipped her index finger in the blood red of the kumkum and made a perfect circle on my forehead. I could notice the mild tremors in her hand. The hand which had held me steady as I walked on my own little two feet..the hand that had held my hand gently yet firm, as we zigzagged through the busy highway after school. The strength was escaping through the fine wrinkles on her skin.

Amma sat down next to me on the cane sofa. The red of the kumkum was still clinging onto her fingertips. Red...blood red...the color that made her my mother and the frail old man in the rocking chair my father. Amma and Appa seemed to have their eyes fixed on me. I knew it was one of those times....

After my board examinations, I had decided to move to the city where I could pursue my engineering. The day I told them about my decision, we had sat in the same positions..the four of us...Amma, Appa, me and the heavy silence. Amma struggled to maintain an impassive, stoic silence while Appa debated with himself in a passionate display of struggle on the otherwise placid face. The verdict was in favour 2-0.

Weekends meant a 3-hour long journey home on the rickety bus and long walks with Appa in the fields. I dont quite remember when the weekly trips turned into monthly trips finally trickling down into unexpected, infrequent visits at the mercy of assigments and hostel "party" sessions. A job offer in the city had ensued. The jury had met again..the verdict 2-0. The trickling stream of visits had meandered over the years - the streak of red showing through..the red of blood.

I caught Appa's glance. The stern black eyeballs had mellowed with age and dissolved into limpid pools of water. But now they were fixed on me. I folded the newspaper and kept it away..."What is it Amma? Is...is anything wrong?"

The tremors in her hands were steadying themselves on the arm on the sofa. I looked at Appa. The man who was my hero all through my growing years, sat coccooned in silence, his gaze fixed upon Amma..passing onto her the strength for uttering the words.

"You remember you asked me many times why I named you Krishna..." the cracks in the voice broke the silence. "The time has come to tell you...."
The next few words were lost in a deluge of emotions, choked words, missing connections put into place. My head was spinning...the words were going around in circles..life had turned a full circle. ADOPTED...the word repeatedly rang in my ears. I was the Krishna...the adopted child...brought up by the generous Nanda and Yashodha. So I was not the dark-hued god...I was not the Gopal surrounded by his Gopikas...I was the adopted son. And who were my parents...? What was the prison that held them in shackles...poverty, relations which could not be named, death....what was it?

Amma and Appa had adopted me...a puny half-starved throwaway from the orphanage. The doctor had diagnosed Amma as incapable of bearing a child. The prescription had been my entry ticket into their lives. The voluntary job transfer to the village and the deliberately avoided family visits had been the wall my parents had erected to shield me from the truth. The faces of the distant aunts loomed infront of my eyes...gushing about how I looked more and more like Appa everyday. The lies flickered in their eyes like hellish fires.

My parents...no I didnt have the right to call them parents...they had revoked it with just one word....ADOPTED. The red...the blood red that tied me to them was just a dye they had injected in the crystal clear of the world, to blur reality. Appa...my hero....my idol...a privilege that was granted to me by the adoption certificate and not my blood. Amma's index finger was still stained red as she wiped away the tears from her eyes. But now it was just the red of kumkum...kumkum that you buy from any shop in the market.

I got up and walked towards the door. Krishna...Krishna..Amma and Appa were calling out to me. Yes...I was Krishna...a figment of a wise man's imagination who wrote an epic, a ghost from the past...thrust into the turbulent waters of reality.

I walked into the fields...the sky was stained red with the remnants of the evening sun. The smell of ripening mangoes whiffed in and out of the leaves. There was a silhoutte in the distance...running across the horizon. A boy of maybe seven-eight years...the full moustache jumping up and down as he ran....a black mark on the sleeve of the oversized shirt.....Somebody was telling a story in the background...a story about three-limbed gods and one-eyes demons.

I turned and walked back into the house....

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Krishna - Part I

"...Om Shanti Shanti".
Amma got up after the twilight prayers, tightening her face against the rheumatoid arthritis. The tiny flames in the lamps reflected themselves in the thousand faces of the diamonds in her ears. As she came into the room, I smiled with anticipation. This was the most enjoyable ritual...Amma touching Appa's feet after the prayers. Appa would always retaliate with a funny blessing and be cursed in turn with a sharp remark said through cheeks the colour of spring roses. At 60, Amma would still blush with the shyness of a 16 year old.

Amma and Appa. The center of my universe. The peak and nadir of my life. Every memory, incident, experience of my life is attached to them. At one-and-a-half, i wiped my running nose with the back of my hand and said in my best baby voice "Ammmmmaaa" for the first time. Amma prayed for the rest of the day, offered her tears to god. Of course, I don't remember any of it. But I have lived the moment through the innumerous times that Amma talks about it - when I lie down in her lap, when I go against her will or just when a leaf from the past drifts into the present.
It was not until I was a good two years old that "Appa" entered my vocabulary - a lapse on my part that has cost Appa heavily in all those family gatherings where he is always chided by Amma.

Family to me always meant the three of us and our dog Tommy. Relatives were aplenty, but they would come into focus only on special occasions - weddings, births in the family. And all they would do is pinch my cheeks and gush about how i had grown so big and how i resembled Appa more and more while Appa would stand by my side, beaming at them with a full-moustached grin. No relatives would come home..sometimes I got a strange feeling that my parents avoided inviting people over as much as they could.

Appa was my role model ever since I was old enough to indulge in hero worship. And in a country with 33 crore gods and larger-than-life filmstars, it doesnt take long.
I would imitate Appa's walk on those evening walks - straight back, long steps, arms hanging loose by the sides, head held high, purposeful yet casual. And when the Dhobi would get Appa's clothes, the smell of coal still lingering in the stiffly ironed creases, I would run up to my room and wear the shirt and imitate Appa's baritone in front of the mirror. I would draw a moustache with Amma's kajal and walk around the house in the same gait. The shirt would be back in the closet before the first sound of Appa's LML Vespa richoceted off the whitewashed compound wall. All the folds in place, the collar facing upwards. Just a faint mark would remain where the overgrown sleeve had taken a dip in the murky waters of the kajal container.

Weekends were always fun. Freedom from the cane-wielding teacher was just one aspect of it. Appa always took me out on long walks - through the fields, mountains. Philosophy mingled with lessons of life and spread across the evening sky in the sweet-smell of ripening mangoes in yellow-orange hues of the warmth of father-son bonding. And the days events would be recounted to Amma over the evening's meal, the rhythmic pauses halting the narration as Amma coaxed another ball of rice into my mouth. Nights were adorned with dreams of waking up a morning to find myself fully grown up -just like Appa, the full moustache tickling the tightly shut pink eyelids,curling the corner of my mouth in a surreal smile.

I would always sleep next to Amma - my head rested on the soft pillow of her arm.
And she would regale me with stories about three-headed gods and one-eyed demons.
Even as my mouth fell open - more out of excitement and interest than exhaustion from the day's activities - a soft hand would close it. Amma always put her hand over me as she slept - as if to reassure herself that I was there with her.

"Amma...why did u name me Krishna?", I asked as soon as she had started telling me about the dark-hued god on one of the humid summer nights. The room rotated about the ceiling fan in rhythmic grating sounds. "Is it because I am dark ?", the darkness of the night had rubbed off on my spirits. Amma's soft laughter wiped the dark soot off my heart. And then she was silent for some time. "No..my little rosebud, you are not dark. I shall tell you someday about it..someday when you grow up." The silence of the night put the thoughts to sleep.

I would ask her about my name many times- as a child, as a teenager.
The last time I asked her, I was nineteen. It was a rainy evening and Amma was wiping my head dry with a linen towel. I had just returned from an after-college meeting with my friends.

"Because...my little Gopal...You always have so many Gopikas around you", Amma whispered into my ears with a sly edge to her voice. Needless to say, I never asked the question again.

<...to be continued>

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Tathastu...(May it be so)

Special Thanks to:
* Shailesh for giving me the name for this post...may we have many more of these wonderful discussions !!!
* Sanat for giving me the idea of a sequel to 'The Flight' Too bad..I couldn't name it 'airborne ghost' though :p :p

The last rays of the sun glared at him through the ventian blinds. He raised a weary hand to shield his eyes against their wrath. The fine beads of sweat on the back of his hand entered his eyes and became one with his tears. They stung his already bloodshot eyes. Pull down the blinds, his mind told him. But his body refused to obey. He was a bundle of wrinkled shirt, alcohol breath and bloated cheeks dumped uncerimoniously against the wall in the corner of the room. The remnant of whatever had been a cellphone held tightly in his hand, the jagged ends of the plastic casing making ruby red satin ribbons on his palms. The half-empty bottle of whisky had done nothing to ease the pain. God......why dont you let me die ? he screamed with his face upward. The wooden ceiling answered him with a familiar creak.

And through the alcohol-induced haze, he could see the face of his mother. The bindi on her forhead perfectly round. her eyebrows doing a ballet when she laughed with him, writhing with the agony of the tandav when she scolded him. But now they were just lying in their place..motionless..lifeless..dead. As though the 5 years of her death had finally caught up with her image in his mind.

"Amma...Karthik hit me with the bat...why doesnt he just die. Then he wont trouble me na". "Kanna...you shouldn't say such things. There are tiny angels all around, who say 'Tathastu' and what you say will come true". "But Amma, I want it to come true...." The eyebrows frowned in slight worry and then smoothened themselves out in silent admonishment of the child.He was five then. But the image of the tiny angels with their gossamer wings floating in the air making words come true, had etched itself in his heart.

When he was seven, his grandfather died. The teary eyed mother tried to explain the event to the saucer-wide eyed boy, Taata has gone to god. He has become an angel now. But what the wailing ladies and stoic men of the house failed to notice was a shrill seven year old voice So Taata will also be able to say Tathastu and make things come true, Amma ?

The last ball of the innings...two runs to win. "Lil' angels...please make us win"...and they had obliged with a 'Tathastu'. It had been his magic word guiding him through the tough tests, nail-biting cricket wins and the occasional fights where the other guy ended up with a bloody nose. A carelessly made wish would be hurriedly followed by a quick slap on one's own face followed by a "please..i didnt mean it" look at the heavens.

All those moments of reckoning flashed in front of the eyes now. A reel...moving fast...then slowing down...to that moment..to that silent prayer...each syllable of the answer ringing in his ears...pausing for a second before moving ahead. He buried his face in his palms, seeking solace in the criss cross patterns of lines on his palms, which had brought him here.

"Yes ma...what do we have here...aah let me see. Your son. Hmm....19 year old you say.....engineering second year ??? good good....one must indulge in education. Okay kid, show me your left palm. You are very stubborn, aren't you ? The Dhanaresha is very long. You will have a fine life. But do not forget to keep your mother in luxury. All these young kids...go off...to foreign lands and forget their amma and appa....Bad...very bad"
" Will...will my son go abroad too ?"
" Yes...why not ?why not ? His education line is very strong...he will go to America very soon"
Palms were read...palms were greased...palms were folded in respect....palms were pressed to the lips in pride and affection.

"May my son be happy in America. May he not fall prey to the vices of smoking,
drinking, and all the foreign women who trap boys of good families with their fair skin and rose-pink lips". And while incense sticks burned and panchamritam was offered to the gods by the frantically praying mother with a kancheevaram saree in downtown Madras...the cigarette burned in one hand while the other clutched a can of Heineken..the eyes checking out the fair skinned damsels in the nightclub in downtown Chicago. The angels did not bless the mother with a 'Tathastu'.

The tape moved faster now. Amma's passing away...the cracking voice over the phone conveying the news of the heart attack. The dull pain..rising again in raging flames...only to be calmed down by the deluge of alcohol.

And then Anne had come into his life. Maybe a creature with gossamer wings had muttered the magic word in all those lonely evenings when he wished the fingers held wisps of shampooed hair and milky-white skin instead of the Marlboro.
American..23...2 past relationships..parents divorced..party freak....strong interest in Indian culture..she had captured his world.

Anne...whose face now filled the screen of his mind....a closeup..the lips parting in a smile...the wisps of golden hair getting into her eyes. He raised his hand to get the hair out of her eyes. He loved the way she smiled when he did that....in all the 5 years of their relationship. But she didnt smile now..she turned her face and walked away...the gold of her hair burning against the last rays of the sun.

The tape moved faster...that evening...the fight..the abuses..the work pressure, the hurled book, the sobs, the hugs....she was walking away....the call...the buzz of the airport in the background.....the beep of the voicemail...the news announcement.......

Blank...the screen was now blank. The cell phone dropped out of his relaxed fingers. The bottle of Jack Daniels stood empty....the last rays of sun had vanished behind the ventian blinds.....blind..the smell of darkness mingled with the sweat on his back....the wall was damp.
The bloodshot eyes peered from behind the palms. She was an angel now...with gossamer wings....making words come true....her pink lips smilin...just the way they had when he told her about his tryst with the winged-creatures and his belief in the magic word.....part glee....part mockery...and sheer amusement....Tathastu she whispered into the hollowness of the room.