Infinity was never so endless in childhood. It was the place where the parallel rail tracks faded away into the mist flitting in the sunlight when one looked southward from Ernakulam Junction Railway Station. And future was a train which could appear there any moment.
I gave different names to that train — IIT Engineer, Poet, Doctor, Journalist, Indian Administrative Service Officer. By that time everyone had begun playing the game of What-You-Wanna-Be. Rivalry had already entered the game. When Sebastian said he wanted to be a mountaineer, Ashraf was keen to become a Formula One Race driver. Priya wished to be the wife of someone with a Pronnoy-Roy beard. Sitara longed to be the first woman jockey of India. For quite sometime she used to wear horse-print T-shirts. Sprinting a distance and jumping in an imaginary bowling act, I would declare: ‘Fast Bowler.’ Mira wanted the Nobel Prize for Peace. For that, disregarding our jeers, she would greet the handicapped beggars with the gestures of Mother Theresa. But, much to our chagrin, Mira’s elder sister Ahalya never participated in our game.
Before long, I too stopped playing the game. My not-so-old father had died before my eyes, unwinding slowly like a toy mouse. Since then, besides studying, eating, playing cricket, staring into the mirror, reading and masturbating, I had begun to worry about my future. Eternity for me was no longer a train that could be seen at a distance, but a vast continent without maps. On certain days I set out looking for it like a fifteenth century navigator. But the seagulls heralding the view of the land never appeared in the lens of my telescope. Very often, trapped in the fishnet of latitudes and longitudes, I went mad.
Sebastian was the first among us to wander. The train that arrived for him did not go to Darjeeling where Tenzing’s mountaineering school was located. Before Sebastian left for Mangalore to do his degree in pharmacy, all of us got together at Ahalya’s house. On that evening Ahalya looked at all of us said: ‘I want to be.’ Then she fell silent. All, except me, pounced on her in a pack: ‘What do you wanna be Ahalya?”
Ahalya did not utter a word. But her silence did not seem to us a ruse to draw our attention. We guessed that her future was something that she intensely desired. Again the others asked in a loud chorus: ‘Tell us, what do you wanna be?’Ahalya sat with her face pressed on her palm and still did not say anything.
`Speak up,’ Priya touched her shoulder encouragingly.
`Go ahead Chechi, we won’t laugh or pull your leg. Come out with it, say that you wanna be the President of India,’ Ahalya’s kid sister Mira egged her on.
`Is it something that you are ashamed to tell us, Ahalya?’ Sebastian asked. Ahalya raised her head and looked fiercely at Sebastian.
`Nurse? Kindergarten Teacher?’ Ashraf queried, ‘or the eye-candy wife of a millionaire? Open up, and tell us whatever you wanna be, Ahalya.’
`Whatever you wanna be, someone else must have already become that long before you. One just cannot be original when it comes to the future,’ Sitara was sure.
It was my silence that finally forced Ahalya to reveal it. She looked at me and said: `Raghavan, I wanna be a ghost.’
`Ghost!’ Priya exclaimed.
‘You say that to sound original.’ Sitara alleged.
`What is wrong with you Chechi? My God, you scare me.’ Mira’s face went pale.
Finding no words to respond, we boys kept quiet. Standing close to Ahalya confided in us: ‘I have never felt anything when you guys played What-You-Wanna-Be. Suddenly, one day I thought: why shouldn’t I be a ghost? A spirit. No one would see me. I would see everyone. I don’t need to eat anything. Mira, why do we wanna be someone when we are big? To eat, to cover ourselves. Once you are a ghost, you do not need any of these. So I want to be a ghost.’ We looked keenly at Ahalya to see if she was joking. Her face said she thought it better to turn into a ghost the very next moment. That shocked us slightly.
Nobody said anything for sometime. As usual, humour was brought in to break the quiet. Ashraf said: ‘It would be our loss not to be able to see Ahalya. How the Almighty must have toiled to create Ahalya. First, Srividya’s hair was chosen. Then Rekha’s nose…’
`Smita Patil’s eyes,’ I suggested.
`Meena Kumari’s eyelashes,’ Sebastian proposed.
`The smile of Madhuri Dixit, Simi Garewal’s neck..,’ with closed eyes Ashraf whispered.
`Dimple Kapadia’s legs from Bobby times,’ Sebastian added
`Hey guys, stop,’ Priya warned, `don’t climb too far up the leg.’
`So, how can Ahalya just fade away? Ahalya, whom the Creator had painstakingly assembled, selecting each part with care? Can we see her as a ghost?’ Ashraf asked widening his eyes. We all laughed. But Ahalya was not fazed.
After that, whenever we talked about Ahalya among ourselves. we went back to this story, and laughed. Sometimes the names changed. Smita Patil gave way to Aishwarya Rai.
After Ahalya went into a coma, on every February 2nd Ahalya’s birthday according to the Christian calendar — we repeated the story in front of the cake decorated with candles showing Ahalya’s age. The thought that Ahalya was still there within the unresponsive body which lay in that room gave us the courage to laugh. One of us would finally say: ‘For her next birthday, Ahalya will blow out the candles.’ Today is her fourth comatose birthday, and the joke has worn thin. For the past few months we have stopped telling the story of Ahalya’s creation. For us hope has been ending inexorably like a pier.
Mira who ran a beauty parlor, and stayed unmarried, reminded us of her sister’s birthday every year. Ashraf who worked in Dubai attended the function only once when he came on leave. In the year she gave birth, Sitara did not come. Sebastian, employed in the Government service, managed to visit Ahalya’s home each time from a different part of Kerala. Priya, who married a lawyer in Ernakulam, also never missed it. Her husband did not have a Pronnoy-Roy beard. He did not even have a moustache.
After my degree in medicine, I had gone to Edinburgh for specialised studies in neurology, and continued to work there. I met the Scottish girl named Iris and lived in with her for a few months, Then we got married. We were only two while we lived together. But before long, routine entered into our marriage as a third person. It was hard to cope. In two years, a divorcee, I came back to Ernakulam.
My old mother cried when she saw me sitting on the veranda and reading only the obituary page in Malayalam dailies. To bring her neurologist son back to life, she borrowed from the next-door neighbour the back issues of Reader’s Digest that carried articles on the brain, and gave them to me. I lived on, measuring the passing months with haircuts till my mother showed me the advertisement for the post of the Head of the Department of Neurology in a huge hospital in Ernakulam. I landed the job.
I saw my work as a shield against leisure. I spent late nights in the hospital. One such night, the duty nurse came and said I had a phone call.
`Dr. Raghavan?’ said a female voice.
`Ahalya?’ It was the first time I spoke to one of my old friends since I returned.
`It’s Mira.’ She had the same throaty Sushmita Sen voice as Ahalya. Mira wept for a while. Her cell phone transmitted the din of vehicles more loudly than her cry.
`I’m bringing chechi to you in an ambulance.’
`What happened to Ahalya?’
`Hit on the head. She has lost consciousness.’
‘I will meet you in the porch.’
The last time I had seen Ahalya was a week before I left for Britain. I went to their house to say goodbye to Ahalya and Mira. Mira was not there. When Ahalya came and sat near me on the couch, I suddenly felt a strong desire for her, as I had never before felt about Ahalya. As I drew in the scent of her breath, I heard my heart pounding.
`What do you plan to do, Ahalya?’ I asked.
`Become a ghost as soon as possible.’
`You haven’t forgotten it?’
‘I had, Raghavan. But I have started thinking about it again these days.’
`Show me that palm, I will predict Ahalya’s future.’
‘When did you learn to read palms Raghavan?’ I asked.
`Yeah, I learned it.’
I started examining Ahalya’s hand. On her palm, besides the prominent lines, there were Chinese ideograms of thin crisscrossing lines. I just held her hand, unable to read it.
`Raghavan, you don’t know how to read palms, do you’?’
`For the touch.’
Ahalya shook her hand free and got up. I also rose. The next moment, lust and the shame of being rejected overtook me, and I drew Ahalya close to me and rubbed my cheek against hers. Ahalya stood still. My lips moved to Ahalya’s lips, and my hand to her breast.
`No,’ Ahalya said without a movement. Quietly. It startled me. As I walked to the door, Ahalya called after me: `Raghavan, just a minute.’
She went inside and brought out a gift pack.
`A farewell gift to you from Mira and me. A tie. To go with your new camel shade jacket.’
I never wore that polka-dotted silver gray tie. As I was preparing to go to Britain, Mother had given me a picture of my father as a youth. I forgot to pack that photograph and the tie Ahalya gifted me. That helped me banish two things from my memory: my father’s selfish, untimely death and Ahalya’s ‘no’.
Till my relationship with Iris soured, I had e-mail contact with everyone except Ahalya. I composed many letters to Ahalya’s e-mail id, email@example.com, but never clicked the ‘Send’ button. I saved m electronic monologues for a while. After Iris and I parted ways, I deleted the all in a fit of frenzy to start everything anew. A ‘no’ suddenly echoed in m head. And the ambulance arrived.
`How did this happen?’ I asked Mira while pushing the trolley to the emergency ward.
`Someone hit her on the head with a whiskey bottle.’
I arranged to prepare the operation theatre, inform the doctors and nurses, and call the barber to shave Ahalya’s head. I went to the cafeteria after sending Ahlaya for scanning. I told Mira who came along with me: ‘Brain surgery takes a lot of time. I thought I should have a bite before that. Where is Ahalya’s husband?’
`Gautaman’s cell phone is switched off. I can’t reach him,’
‘Who hit Ahalya?’
`No idea’ Mira started weeping.
`When did this happen?’
`I don’t know. In the evening the milkman rang the bell and no one answered him. After he had placed the milk packets near the door and turned to leave, he felt something sticky on his feet He looked back and found his red footprints on the steps. He ran back to chechi’s flat. Blood was coming out through the gap beneath the door.’ She fell silent for a moment.
`In that milkman’s words, “blood trickled out of the house like a train of red ants”, Mira wiped her face, and continued: ‘The people next door called me up. There was a locksmith down the lane and it was not difficult for him to open the door. My sister was lying in the living room, bleeding. A broken bottle of Red Label lay near her. Some whiskey was left in it. My sister’s skirt was drenched. The mixed stench of blood, alcohol and urine.
`We took her to a nursing home nearby. They removed the broken pieces of glass from her head and dressed the wounds. The doctor out there told us to rush her immediately to Dr. Raghavan.’
I listened to Mira with admiration as she repeated the story to Sitara and her husband Mukesh. And to many relatives and friends whom I did not know, without adding or omitting a detail. But when she narrated the incident to Priya and her husband Ravi, a criminal lawyer, she added one thing: `The security guards saw Gautaman get in the car and go out at three o’ clock.’
The scan results showed that Ahalya did not need surgery. She opened her eyes on the third day. The same day Gautaman was arrested in a hotel in Thalassery. I did not permit the police to question Ahalya. But I could not stop the young woman police officer from asking her: ‘Was it Mr. Gautaman who did this?’ Ahalya nodded.
Even after opening her eyes, Ahalya had occasional blackouts. Sometimes she cried due to severe headaches. After two weeks, she stopped relapsing into unconsciousness. Still I kept her in the hospital under observation. On the day she was discharged I said: ‘Be careful. We can’t afford any complications to develop.’
‘Won’t you visit me?’ Ahalya asked.
`The ailing me?’
‘I don’t make house calls.’
The first time I dropped by Ahalya’s, she opened the door and said: knew you would come.’
`I just dropped in to say we could do one more scan.’ Was it difficult to find this place?’
`No, Mira had told me that all the taxi drivers would know the apartment where movie star Devraj lives.’
We sat on the veranda of Ahalya’s ninth floor house and watched the city lights fade the darkening sky. At a distance, the flames of burning gases rose from the chimneys of Cochin Refineries and painted those dark stretches of the sky red.
`What was the name of your ex-wife?’
`Raghavan, do you miss Iris….Britain?’ Ahalya asked.
I kept quiet.
`Did you avoid me all this time because I didn’t allow you to kiss me that day with that palm reading gambit’?’
`I haven’t met Gautaman,’ I said. This time Ahalya kept silent.
The next scan results showed a small clot on Ahalya’s brain. Ahalya was admitted in the hospital. I decided that she did not need surgery, and put her on medicine. At times Ahalya was disoriented. She spent almost a month in the hospital. The day before leaving the hospital Ahalya told me: ‘I need to ask you something, Raghavan.’
I sat down before her in a chair. Ahalya asked: ‘You did not take the tie we gifted and your father’s photograph to Edinburgh, did you?’
‘Who told you?’
`I met your mother at a wedding.’
`Mother didn’t tell me she met you.’
`She must have forgotten,’ Ahalya closed her eyes and said.
`Yeah, must have forgotten,’ I said.
I visited Ahalya one Sunday evening after intimating her over the phone. I noticed that the little disorientation left in her eyes on the day of her discharge from the hospital had disappeared. We pulled up cane chairs to balcony and sat.
‘Did you notice my sports shoes?’ I asked.
`Yes, I did, as soon as you came in. They do not go with your clothing. So old,’ Ahalya said.
`They’re my father’s. He used to go jogging everyday. Mother found them among the old things. She asked me if they would fit me. I told her to give them away to some beggar. Her face fell. So I just checked them. Size eleven. I suddenly knew who left me these big feet.’
We didn’t say anything for a while. I rose and walked up to the balustrade. I held the railing and looked at Ernakulam where wind shifted from the land to e Arabian Sea. Ahalya asked softly from behind; `Raghavan, you have come Aell me about your father’s sports shoes, haven’t you?’
`Oh, I did not have to guess too hard,’ Ahalya laughed.
`How did you know?’
`It’s clear that you have your father on your mind. Size eleven sports shoes, salt-and-pepper moustache…your body holds forth all that is on your mind.’
`Isn’t everyone like me?’
`Maybe. But I am not. I don’t have a mind,’ Ahlaya said.
I felt Ahalya was soliloquising. I asked: ‘Don’t have a mind?’
`No. I’m my body. It was my desire for a mind that made me yearn to me a ghost. My body is my mind too. My thoughts are brought to me by its potholes…’
`The portholes of the body?’
`Yeah. Its pores. I have often felt that all the cavities in the body share a single emotion: urge. Nose has an urge to breathe. Mouth’s urge is to eat. Then there is the urgent call to pee. And the other compelling urgency. The ache of urging breasts that brim with milk. My ears had an urge to listen to Malayalam film songs. I could not bear the urge of the crack beneath my belly for long. I knew world through Nine Orifices.’
Without turning to Ahalya, I stood looking at the ruby taillights of the vehicles rushing along one half of the long road below, and the diamond headlights of those coming in the opposite direction.
`Raghavan, come and sit here,’ Ahalya said, ‘I’ll tell you why Gautaman hit me, something Gautaman held back from the court.’
`Did you know Gautaman before?’ I asked.
`No, it was an arranged marriage. He was an engineer in Cochin Port. He looked clean. I felt he would take good care of me. A big attraction was that I did not have to go away from mother and Mira to another city.’
`Sitara wrote that Gautaman looked handsome. And, very serious, too.’
`Serious? My wedding was strange,’ Ahalya exclaimed, ‘In the wedding pavilion, Gautaman sat cross-legged as all grooms do. But he looked straight ahead, and kept his fists on his knees. Like the yoga teachers on TV I almost burst out laughing. He refused to look at me even when he was tying the knot. The guests and I started feeling awkward. No one except the nadaswaram players made any sound; only the video-cameramen moved.’
`At the wedding feast I teased Gautaman: “Are you afraid to show your profile?” Gautaman continued eating carefully and did not answer me.’
Ahalya walked up to the railing. She said looking at Ernakulam: ‘I was twenty-six when I got married. You were the only one who had even touched me until then.’
`Why were you so late to marry?’
‘I was not good at schoolwork. I saw marriage itself as a career. There were many proposals. Nothing worked out. Hadn’t the Creator put all the parts together like a watchmaker to assemble me! Maybe they thought it would be difficult to keep a wife as beautiful as me. Gautaman simply lacked thoughts. So, that wedding took place.’
`Go to bed, Ahalya,’ I suggested. ‘don’t exert your brain.’
`I am not tired,’ she maintained while walking into the flat. Ahalya came back with a famous Scotch whiskey, and soda. Pouring the whiskey into the glass she said: ‘There are still whiskey bottles here that have not yet been smashed against heads.’
I laughed aloud for the first time in months. I remembered what Ahalya asked Ashraf, Sebastain and me when we began evading her after she became of age: ‘Guys, why are you so shy?’
‘I punished Gautaman for ruining my wedding’ Ahalya said, ‘My outfit on our first night. I chose an old greenish yellow — the colour of baby poop — cotton sari for that night. I wore the black-framed glasses that I had never use outside my room. Rubber slippers on my feet. I wanted Gautaman to feel disgus towards me. That was what I had planned for Gautaman.
`Gautaman sat on the chair in front of me. He gestured to my feet. I got up and removed my slippers. Then he gestured at my face; with his index nor. I did not quite follow what Gautaman meant. His finger was insistent. I started setting scared. A pleasurable fear deep inside the belly that comes from jitters hand wetness, and the urge to piss. Then it struck me that he was asking me to lake off my glasses. First step to undress me. My fear vanished. Some more whiskey?’
‘No.’ I said.
`The ten fingers of Gautaman’s open palms asked me to rise. I got up. Gautaman’s first finger pointed to my baby poop yellow sari. I took it off. No, I didn’t feel insulted. Nor frightened. Instead, a primal curiosity. I dropped my clothes one by one obeying Gautaman’s finger. Finally, Gautaman pointed to the bed. I went and lay down there.’
Ever since I returned from Edinburgh I have not been inquisitive about anything. But Gautaman aroused curiosity in me again. It was like betraying Ahalya, but I could not help asking: ‘How was Gautaman otherwise?’
`Being with Gautaman was easy. I could sense what was going on in his md. He had a kind of face made of glass. Revealing all his thoughts. Gautaman fronted the world with habits. That made my life easy. “Is it rice gruel or chappathi for tonight?” I would ask after kneading the dough ready for chappathi. Gautaman would think for sometime with closed eyes and then is say: “Chappathi.” Gautaman was tightfisted only when it came to one thing. Touch.’
‘Gautaman took me to bed whenever he decided. If I warmed up to him sometimes, that would turn him off. After the act, Gautaman was always in a hurry to get into his jeans. But I longed to lie close to Gautaman and sumptuously feel asleep during that time when every part of the body except the eyes becomes light as a feather.’
Suddenly I thought of Iris. After we had sex, she would sit up and light cigarette. When I continued to be quiet, Ahalya probed me: ‘Iris?’
`Sorry.’ Ahalya went inside and got a glass full of ice cubes. She poured a little whiskey into it and spoke in between sips, `Raghavan, we have learnt not to look at woman as an object of sex. But I wanted to be just that, and I started looking at Gautaman as a sexual object.’ Ahalya smiled momentarily.
‘A strange object that doesn’t yield to my control. I started forgetting my physical needs. Gautaman could sense that, and he would signal me towards the bedroom with his eyes. With my whole body protesting, I would go and lie down on the bed. Sometimes in the afternoon Gautaman would call up and say he was coming home. Once he called when I was in Anita’s place. She is the sister of our apartment’s claim-to-fame movie star, Devraj. She took care of his flat. Anita was giggling when I ran out explaining that Gautaman would reach home soon.’
`Was it the day when Gautaman hit you with the bottle’?’ I asked.
`No,’ Ahalya continued, ‘On that afternoon I got a call: “Ahalya, it’s me, Gautaman.” I could tell that someone was impersonating Gautaman. The voice I heard was very familiar. The voice said: “I will be there at two.” When I heard the knock at two, I said: “It’s not closed.” The familiar voice said: “I am not Gautaman.” I replied: “I know that.” When Devraj entered the room the scent of cologne filled the house. Not counting TV and movies, I had met Devraj only once before in the elevator of our apartment.’
‘Devraj said : “From the moment I saw you in the elevator….” We walked into the bedroom. Devraj read my body the way the blind would read a poem in Braille script, touching it line by line. Finally as we were slipping into a calm silence, I jumped up and said: “Devraj you better leave. Gautaman may come home.”
`And yes, as soon as Devraj got out, Gautaman came in, his face lit up in a smile. Gautaman said: “While I was getting off the elevator, there went, our super star Devraj! Drenched in cologne.” Gautaman abruptly stopped talking. He stood there for sometime trying to catch the scent in the air. Then he started sniffing around, rushing into the bedroom to smell the bedspread, holding me tight and sniffing at my cheeks, lips, shoulders…None of this affected me. Indulging in my languid enchantment, I sat in the living room. A naughty smile might have lined my lips. Suddenly Gautaman came running with a bottle and hit me on the head.’
For the second time that day, Iris touched my memory. It was not a delightful feeling to think of myself as a distanced third person in her conversations in Edinburgh. Perhaps because Ahalya reminded me of Iris, I did not visit her for sometime. One night Mira called me up at the hospital: `Raghavan, chechi is throwing up.’
`Mira, give her a lime to smell. Vomiting is not a good sign. I’ll be there soon.’ When I got out of the hospital, I did not feel like calling a cab. I sat in the front seat of the ambulance.
I saw Ahalya. She had blacked out. I got her inside the ambulance and put her on oxygen. Later, the sound of Ahalya’s breath echoed in the hospital corridors. I admitted her to the Intensive Care Unit. She was put on ventilator. We scanned her head from various angles.
Mira came back to the hospital after a daylong sleep that followed two wakeful nights. She asked me: ‘Is surgery needed?’
‘I don’t think so.’
`That’s some luck.’
‘I was thinking of chechi’s hair.’ Mira said. I kept quiet.
‘ I know I am sounding silly,’ Mira started sobbing.
‘Will the medicines be effective?’
`Too early to say.’
`You are trying to hide something from me.’ Mira said pointedly.
`Nothing is certain as of now. I have sent the results to my old professor in Edinburgh. Let’s see what he says.’
Over the next two weeks, there were lots of accidents in Ernakulam. I had at least two surgeries to perform everyday. That was a convenient excuse in to avoid Mira. I telephoned Mira on the day my professor in Edinburgh reached me by mail:
`Mira, shall I come to your place for dinner tonight? Call them all over, your mother, father’s brother, and your cousin Mohan.’
‘Is it that bad’?’
`Tell me now,’ Mira said.
`No, I want to speak to my professor over the phone.’
That night we sat around the dinner table before empty plates. Mira, her mother and some male relatives were present. Priya and Ravi had come. Sitara and her husband Mukesh were there too. Sebastian came from Alappuzha. I looked at everyone and said: ‘If mother and Mira agree, I can take Ahalya off the ventilator. Then she can breathe on her own. But to make that possible I’ll need to perform a minor surgery to make an opening in the windpipe. After that Ahalya can be brought home. Medicine cannot help beyond this.’
`Won’t my sister recover at all?’ Mira was flustered.
`I shall arrange for a masseur who does head massage for comatose patients. And a good home nurse.’ I said.
`Ayurveda?’ Priya and Ravi questioned together.
`I can’t say.’
All of us got up when Ahalya’s grandmother came into the room. Grandmother walked up to me and asked: ‘is this all your medical science is about, Raghavan?’
Nobody spoke for sometime. Then Mira raised her head and asked: `Food?’
`Through a tube,’ I answered.
‘How long will my child remain like this?’ Ahalya’s mother started crying, `Why don’t you remove all those tubes. Let her go in peace.’
Sebastian opened a packet of cigarette. I asked for one. I lit a cigarette for the first time after many years.
`What is the use of keeping her like this?’ Ahalya’s mother asked.
`Mother, what are you saying? She is our Ahalya.’ Sitara said.
`Raghavan, will she ever get well? Or after lying like this for sometime….’ Mira hesitated.
Everyone looked at me. I sat with a bowed head.
`What can Raghavan say?’ Sebastian wondered.
`I would be more than happy if my family pulled the plug on me in case I were laid up like this,’ Priya said.
I stood up and pointed my two fingers that held the cigarette at each one’s face. The way Iris does when she gets angry. I declared: ‘Nobody should play God.’ As my voice rose, it now broke like Iris’s, believe in miracles.’ I walked out of the house.
As I drove back home, I saw an open telephone booth. After my return from Edinburgh, I called up Iris for the first time. The phone rang for sometime and then my own voice came on the answering machine: ‘We are presently not at home. We shall call you back when we return. Please leave your name, message and telephone number after the beep….’
Mira invited us over on Ahalya’s birthday, the first since she was bedridden. Ahalya looked a little shrunk as she lay in her new clothes. Sebastian and I stood silently. Mira escaped into the kitchen. Sitara and Mukesh sat talking to each other. Priya and Ravi played with their child.
That was when Ashraf came in. His driver came behind him carrying a big cake. Ashraf played the CD of Yesudas songs on a music system he had brought from Dubai as a gift for Ahalya. Ashraf and his driver hung festoons in the room. Mukesh and I began to blow up the balloons. Mira cut the cake for Ahalya. Ashraf sang aloud: ‘Happy Birthday to you Ahalya..’ The rest of us joined in: ‘Dear Ahalya…’
After that we often gathered at Ahalya’s. I never forgot to take tapes or CDs of Malayalam songs as gifts for Ahalya. Sebastian came there on most Saturdays. Priya’s husband Ravi sometimes played the flute for Ahalya and us. Mira got the girls from her beauty parlor to file Ahalya’s nails. Sitara laid her newborn girl on Ahalya’s chest and said ‘Sweetie, you are lying on Beautiful Aunty.’
Mira called me last evening to say that today was Ahalya’s birthday. Then she asked me: `Raghavan, can you come by ten in the morning tomorrow? Jayanti, her home nurse, said she would be a little late.’
`Tomorrow is Sunday, isn’t it? Oh, yes, I will be there.’
`Chechi’s face looks so dull. I want to give her a facial. Could you bring one hundred grams of Fuller’s Earth and one hundred grams of sandal powder? I forgot to bring them from the beauty parlor.’
I reached Mira’s home by ten this morning. Mira mixed Fuller’s Earth nd sandal powder in two egg whites and the juice of two lemons. She put a ittle turmeric powder into it, and added half a bottle of rosewater to make a ste. The mixture was applied on Ahalya’s face. Mira made me a cup of ffee while waiting for Ahalya’s face to dry. Then she wiped Ahalya’s face can and said: ‘I have to go and bring grandmother. Raghavan can leave as n as Jayanti comes.’
I sat in the living room watching cricket. In the break between wickets I itched off the TV. Then I noticed that the music had stopped in Ahalya’s m. I went into her room and put on a Yesudas tape. When I returned to watch TV, I vaguely felt something was different about Ahalya. I went back checked on her. Everything looked as before. I came back, but still felt less and went in again to check. Now I saw the two small lumps of Ahalya’s t nipples breaking the usual evenness of the sheet that covered her. I could that her breasts were firm. The sheet had seised the quickening of her breath too.
I ran to my car, took out the torch from the glove compartment, and rushed back. I reached Ahalya, and shone the torch into each of her eyes. Her roving eyes took me by surprise. In that moment of wonder I felt exhilarated and alone.
Then, did I feel Ahalya’s fingers on my head? Like wisps of smoke wafting through my hair. A sudden blaze of fire. Ahalya’s hand gripped my hair and drew my lips nearer to hers. I forced my head away, and whispered into her ear: ‘No.’
And, like snow melting, I saw the lumps on the sheet disappear. I walked back.
Translated from Malayalam by Rizio Yohannan Raj
Born in Ernakulam, Kerala in 1948, N.S. Madhavan is one of the most versatile writers in the Malayalam language. He joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1975 and had for some time lost touch with his mother tongue, but made a reentry into Malayalam Literature with a short story ‘Higuita.’ This was followed by `Vanmarangal Veezhumpol.’ Madhavan has published five collections of short stories. His novel Lathanbatheriyile Luthiniyakal was published in the year 2003.
RIZIO YOHANNAN RAJ. Executive editor with Katha. Gifted writer and translator, Rizio has published widely. Recently she edited a three volume collection of the poems of K. Satchidanandan.