(Based on a true story)
“I had the dream again.”
She walked and sat next to me, taking my hand in hers, caressing the folds of my skin.
“You have to forget her. You saved me,” she said.
“I can’t,” I whispered.
“It has been sixty years.”
“Yes. Sixty years. And her sound still wakes me up.”
Tears ran down my crumpled face. It wasn’t the first time. It wasn’t going to be the last. She had wiped my tears infinite times before. She was going to wipe them now. She moved her hand. I held it tight.
“Don’t,” I said.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
We sat silently for a while. Then I sighed.
“The sound that woke me up today was different.”
“What did you hear?”
“Boiling water,” I said.
* * *
I don’t know what it means to be completely happy. Can anyone be completely happy? Don’t we always have something running in the back of our mind – a tragedy, a horror story, a sorrow, a nightmare? Over the years, I have realised that even though I might be giddy with my so called achievements, despondency runs through me like blood. I can never get rid of it. It is like the fingers on my hand – a part of me that cannot be cut away without pain.
It is not as if I cannot pretend to be happy. I can. I retired from my job two years back in 2011. If you go and ask the people I worked with, they will tell you what a clown I was. I had a wand of laughter. It was my way of making my staff comfortable. I would sit with them and tell them funny stories. They respected me. They cried on my farewell. They gave me flowers and gifts. But then they did not see me sitting alone in my cabin, staring at the wall, tossing the paperweight. They did not see me gulping those medicines so that I could sleep peacefully. They did not see me getting up in the middle of the night reaching for air like a drowning man, drenched in my sweat, my hands on my ears. That is what I mean when I say that you can never be completely happy because when you are happy, you sleep with a grin on your face. When you are happy, someone wakes you up in the morning and you smile and put your head beneath the pillow so that you could sleep for five more minutes.
* * *
“But you never heard just boiling water before,” she said.
“I did a few weeks ago. It keeps coming back.”
“Did you hear her as well?” she asked reluctantly.
“No. Not this time. I prefer water as long as I don’t hear her.”
She patted my hand. I looked into her eyes.
“Can I?” she asked.
I nodded. She wiped the tears off my face.
“You have an appointment today,” she said after my tears were on her hands.
I saw pain on her face when she got up from the chair. Her joints were troubling her again. She stood holding the sofa for a few seconds before moving to the kitchen.
“I will make tea,” she said.
My appointment was at 4 o’clock. I have been going there since the last one year hoping for a miracle.
* * *
It was difficult to get out of the village. Baba always wanted me to be a farmer like him. I knew I had to find ways, run towards any door that could take me away from this life. I asked Ma to send me to school. She laughed. Boys in the village hated going to school and here I was, coaxing my mother. She talked to Baba.
“He won’t like it there and drop out in a few months. What is the harm?” she told him. He grudgingly agreed to it.
The school was not in my village. There was a single school for 5 villages in the district. It was 3 kilometres away. I walked. I did not feel tired. It wasn’t a choice to attend school. It was a resolve.
I was seven. I did not drop out like the rest of the boys of the village. After one year, Baba tried to get me out of the school but I was adamant. Ma helped calm him. She saw that I was interested in studying. Had she known that I was growing wings to desert her one day, she would have turned into someone I could have never recognised. I barely recognized Baba for what I had seen him doing four years back. Of course, now I know that Ma was an equal partner in the crime.
The year was 1959. I had been studying for two years now when I asked Ma if my younger sister could attend school with me. Mother was milking the cows. She laughed again but this time she did not talk to Baba.
“Girls don’t study. They learn household work,” she said running her hand in my hair. Droplets of milk stuck in my hair.
“Ma, how were you saved?” I asked.
She stopped milking the cow, the fingers of her right hand curled on one of the teats. She could not understand my question. Then I saw realization dawn in her eyes. She turned around and looked harshly at me.
“Go, help your Baba,” she said. She stared at me as I walked away, suddenly scared.
I requested my school teacher to talk to my parents so that they send my sister to school. She was a kind lady who came to my house and successfully drilled some sense in my parents. Shyamli, my sister, started going to school with me on a promise that she will still do all the household chores assigned to her. Sending her to school made my parents the laughing stock of the village. Baba was very angry but Ma asked him to be calm and let her handle it.
“No one will marry her!” he said.
“What are you teaching your daughter for? Will she become a doctor?” the village women would laugh at Ma when she went to fetch water at the village well.
“I don’t want her to use her thumb as a signature,” Ma would reply.
“You will pay for your madness one day,” the women would retort.
To be continued