No strength left. Even to toss and turn. The coarse bed-covers, stiffly starched, feel prickly and strain against the wasted cage-like body. Never knew I had such an angular frame. Folds of flesh, which once sat pretty on me, hugging contours and curves, have fallen off like scales. Sleep-starved eyes move restlessly from the mouldy patch on the wall to the high ceiling to the grimy blades of the mournfully whirling fan. The night nurse, a soft-spoken young person, moving from bed to bed — dove-like — tries to drug me to sleep. One of those morphine-induced trances! Sacrilege, to call them sleep. A jerk, a thud, cold sweat trickle down the neck. Am I falling out of my body? Back again, on vigil, fighting, braving yet another bout of pain. A muffled moan, a sob, a shrill cry — I hear my fellow sufferers. The ebb and flow, the cadence of their pain. Outside on the corridor, the heavy footsteps of the watchman mark the milestones of my night.
From the window at the far end of the ward, through the gap in the curtain, I have glimpses of an oblong shaped blob of a sky and the first white streaks of dawn. The sparrows, nesting in the branches in the gulmohar tree beneath my bedroom window, must be up and chirping, teasing my husband to leave his cosy bed. I hear the familiar rhapsody of the morning rituals. The swish of the broom in the courtyard, now scraping against the gravel, now cracking against a heap of dried leaves. The milkman at the doorstep, warm and heedful, wishing a hearty ram ram bibiji. The initial uncaps and cough of water as it struggles to escape the pipeline. Tina, my thirteen year old Pomeranian is curled up on the kitchen floor barking at the squirrel scurrying across the window pane. I wonder, does any one remember to give the squirrel its quota of grains? The pressure cooker hisses on the stove. A whiff of spice, the delectable trail of cardamom and cloves. Shanku’s milkshake swirls and whips in the mini blender. Omelette dotted with black and green pepper bubbles on the pan. Can Gopu’s wife, the pretty little thing, take all this on her young shoulders?
I look at the photographs precariously balanced on the top of the trolley — the one and only piece of furniture around me. The bride and the bridegroom. Gopu looks like a prince — so tall, all smiles. The bride looks glorious too. The five of us. The pink and white blossoms of the madhumalti hold a canopy for us! The auspicious day, when the bride walked in under a shower of rice grains and rose petals. How happy we look! Who could have foreseen the shadows round the corner?
Gopu comes with his wife and stands at my feet. The girl cradles a basket laden with fruit — a duck-shaped cane basket in her arms. The beady brown eye, the beak, a dark maroon! Don’t they look familiar? Oh! The wonderful holiday we had. My husband and I in the hills, a couple of years before the birth of Shanku. I picked up the duck baskets in one of the malls. Where was it hiding all these years? I must have tucked it away in the attic. The bride is familiar with the house.
“Gopu, you don’t have to look so mournful. I see rainbows and moonbeams in your eyes and hers. Let your happiness reach out to me. Tell your bride to cut an apple or peel an orange for me. Never mind if she has not taken to Tina. Tina is old and epileptic. Her fits can be scary. It is hard. But that is the wise decision. You must put her to sleep. No. No. Don’t worry, Shankar has not been carrying tales. I agree with your bride, Gopu, Shankar mustn’t eat so many chocolates. Yes, he must go for jogging. I bid them go home. They have lots to catch up with.
My husband walks in. He carries a single rose in his hands, a yellow rose; my favourite and his. How thin and tired he looks! Grief has darkened his face. He cannot bear to touch my head. Underneath the silk scarf, my head looks and feels like a stubble field. A well-meaning optimistic chemotherapist has harvested my luxurious long hair. He holds my hand. His hands are clammy with sweat. I can feel his strain. I urge him to go. His life has to flow to the rhythm of tomorrow. The clock ticks for him. The calendar rolls for him. And I …can I compress this moment? Or can I stretch it to infinity….
Today is Alfonsa’s birthday. Not really. Her birthday falls in June and today is only the seventh of March. But…who has the heart to utter the truth — that the little girl may not live until June? The doctors, the nurses, the ward boys, even the sweepers have willingly entered into the conspiracy. At six o’clock in the evening, Alfonsa’s school friends are coming to the ward to celebrate her birthday. The ayah and the ward boy have been working since morning. Screens have been shifted to one side, curtains have been changed. They have even managed to retrieve a large rectangular table and a few chairs from the reception lounge. The entire ward is getting ready for the occasion.
All those who are not in excruciating pain have offered to lend a hand in the arrangements. After all Alfonsa is the youngest inmate and the darling of ward number nine, the purgatory of the terminally ill patients. They know, unlike them, Alfonsa is free from burden, the burden of knowledge, the knowledge of the doom. A chirpy, giggly nine year old, blissfully happy, who wouldn’t like to keep her that way? Even the grumpy old Bhagwanti who keeps screaming and cursing from the neighbouring bed, has a soft corner for little Alfonsa.
Of course their heart goes out to Alfonsa’s poor mother — Alfonsa is the only patient who has been allowed an attendant — who sits by her daughter’s bedside with red-rimmed eyes and a smouldering heart, taking all the woes on herself. Even when Alfonsa has her fits of fever and bouts of pain, her mother knows how to soothe her. Cradling her in her arms, she croons a song, says a prayer, or tells a story and Alfonsa soon cheers up or mercifully slips into peaceful sleep.
Two ladies, who have beds opposite to Alfonsa’s bed, are busy cutting stars and flowers out of pink and blue sheets of paper. Bhagwanti is sitting up on her bed, chopping apples and guavas. She wants to make her special fruit chaat for Alfonsa. Another lady piecing together a rag-doll for Alfonsa. Festivities ward number nine! The pain and the trauma, the countdown. Have they forgotten it all? The nurses look a bit amused, a bit relieved.
Alfonsa’s mother makes sure she takes all the items. Gingerly, she lifts up the cake which has been carefully packed in a cardboard box. Alfonsa had wanted a chocolate cake in the shape of a train. Last year she had asked for an aeroplane cake. Driving in a beading car, spinning and swirling in a merry-go-round she would pluck the air into her mouth and cough.
This morning while whipping butter and sugar into smooth cream, alfonsa’s mother had helplessly looked at those saline drops — her own miserable tears, much more than a sprinkle — falling across the swirling puff. Vigorously, almost with a violence that surprised her, she kept beating at it until the whole thing, sighing with air bubbles rose up into one huge mass. No. She couldn’t afford to sigh and weep. That would be luxury. Alfonsa had to be kept happy till the end. She should never come to know about the verdict. Even when they were alone, she and her husband had never talked about the countdown…. Who knows the echoes of their despair may somehow creep across to the little girl! They must bear the cross silently, for their daughter’s sake. She swiftly folded chocolate and flour into the bowl and shoved the tray into the oven.
She had always enjoyed giving gifts to the children who came for her daughter’s birthday. She has chosen something special this time too, something they can keep for long if they wished to cherish the memory of Alfonsa. It is a cute figurine carved out of shining creamy sea shells, of a little girl hugging a tiny guitar to herself and looking up at a tree in full bloom. The little girl looks like a solitary angel, lonely and lost-like. With an effort, she swallows the rising lump in her throat. Both her hands loaded with baskets, she walks towards the ward.
Alfonsa was born to them ten years after their marriage, after years of heart rending prayers. Finally when she was born prematurely in the eighth month of her pregnancy, what heartburn both she and her husband had gone through! For the first few days, they had watched her with bated breath like a treasure enclosed in the incubator. Their heart fluttered as they looked on, milk falling into her mouth — her ridiculously tiny mouth — drop by drop, from the end of a cotton bud. And later at home, trying to keep her warm with hot water bottles night after night, they had taken turns to sit by her cradle. The premature birth, they had succeeded in harbouring, but the premature death, would they be able to harness it? Tears roll down her cheeks. Oh, Jesus! What kind of a trial is this?
Alfonsa hugs Mamma and peers into the basket. she has been waiting anxiously for Mamma. she tries to rattle off the story of the day in a single breath. The silver cross, tied in a black silk thread pathetically hangs round her bird-like neck. she holds it out to her mother. A birthday gift to Alfonsa from Mother superior who had come to visit her in the morning. Two of her teachers had also come along. A shining black leather-bound copy of the Bible is lying next to her pillow; it is her class teacher’s special gift.
“Mamma, I reminded Mother Superior, she has to hold a special exam for me. Don’t you remember she had promised me that? I have missed the annual exam. If I don’t sit for an exam how can I be promoted to the next class?”
Alfonsa’s mother winces. Alfonsa doesn’t know the annual exams are to start two months from now. What could Mother Superior have said? She wouldn’t tell lies. Or was she forced to do so for Alfonsa’s sake? Alfonsa’s mother looks vaguely at the little hands of her daughter ruffling the gold-rimmed pages of the Bible.
“Mamma, why don’t you cut my nails? While talking to Mother superior my nose bled. The nurse said it is because I scratched my nose.” The nurse standing at the foot of the bed nods her head vigorously, a bit too vehemently, as though she wished to confirm it and looks at the mother helplessly. The message doesn’t miss her.
“Mother Superior has promised she would hold a special prayer and light a pair of candles in the church as tall as me,” Alfonsa goes on.
Last Sunday in the church, Alfonsa’s mother had asked the Father if it would be all right to call a soothsayer to the hospital. One of her neighbours knew a pious old Brahmin who claimed he could touch and heal.
“There is no harm in trying. Though no miracle can cure your daughter. It may give you some satisfaction.” Father had smiled at her kindly.
The soothsayer had pulled a cotton wick out of his bundle. Dipping it generously in ghee, he lit it carefully and held it at Alfonsa’s head for full five minutes. With his free hand, he felt her pulse and muttered a few words. He threw the live wick into the bowl filled with a blood-red liquid — a concoction of turmeric and lime. Alfonsa enjoyed every bit of the show; especially the sizzling sound of the flame as it fell into the bowl. With that the soothsayer had driven away all evil eyes. So, she was told. Alfonsa was relieved and happy. The Mami next door had sent the holy man to hasten her recovery. But her mother knew too well that neither the soothsayer nor the candles of Mother Superior could ever wave leukaemia away.
The little girls walk in, dressed in their best party frocks. There are a few boys too, smartly turned out. Even Alfonsa has discarded her dull hospital gown and is wearing a white billowy frock trimmed with thin lines of filigree lace. Her friends flock around her and sing the merry “Happy Birthday to You’ tune for her. The aunties sit up on their sick beds and watch the scene with brimming eyes. Alfonsa’s parents are busy running around the ward, handing over plates, loaded with sweetmeats and savories.
“Alfonsa, why are you celebrating your birthday? It is not yet June.” It is Preeti, Alfonsa’s best friend calling out to her from the other end of the ward.
Alfonsa’s mother suddenly stops in her tracks. “Preeti, don’t you know Alfonsa is very sick?” It is Manish, the boy next door, “She may not survive until June, I heard my mother telling my father.”
Before Alfonsa’s mother can rush in and still Manish, he has passed the verdict.
The forks and spoons clatter ominously through the silence. The doctors and nurses look away in confusion. The auntie from the opposite bed breaks into a sob. Alfonsa’s mother runs to her daughter’s bed and folds her to her bosom. Father walks wearily, abjectly, towards the bed. Alfonsa looks at Preeti and Manish, at the doctors and the nurses and smiles disarmingly.
“Mamma, I will recover. Jesus will take care of me. The monk Alphonso will protect me. The soothsayer said I would live a hundred years. Mother Superior said she would light hundred candles -each one as tall as me – and pray for me. Alfonsa strokes her mother’s head and holds her heaving body in her tender arms. Father looks on with unblinking eyes.
“Get away you dogs, I won’t leave a pie for you. You want to see the end of me. Who told you I am dying? I won’t go for a long time yet. Bhagwanti will give you the surprise of your life. Me dying? Mare mere dushman! Let death come to the whole lot of you, my enemies.” When Bhagwanti kicked her feet and pounded on her chest and screamed, the nurses and the ward boys had a tough time. They had to tie her arms and put her legs onto straps and pin her down to the bed. She would spit at them and curse them.
Bhagwanti was not always violent. Those happened only on the days when she had a visitor.
Bhagwanti told the social workers who came on their weekly rounds for counselling that she had no one except a son who had settled in the U.K. But once in two weeks or at least once in a month, visitors came for her who called themselves her relatives. Despite Bhagwanti’s curses and abuses, there was one young man who patiently called on her every Sunday. Nandu came and stood by her bed with folded hands. Bhagwanti wouldn’t let him touch her feet. She would ward him off and scream.
“Badi Ma? Who is that? I am not your Ma. You are no son of mine. Lalaji wouldn’t look at my son. What was wrong with my Kishore? He was a bit dark. And this pahadi chooha — this mountain rat is a prince. Pygmy sized, pale like death! You have come to see I am dead or not? Where is that bitch that gave birth to you? Dead and gone, isn’t it? But I am still here? That is it. There is someone above who sees everything. Brought down from the hills to sweep the floor and wash vessels, that puny bit of a girl would dare to eat from my plate!”
Nandu wouldn’t utter a word. He would just dodge the missiles she threw at him, the apples and oranges he had carried for her. He would pick them up one by one and patiently put them back into the plastic bag. With folded hands, he would resume his place at the feet of his Badi Ma.
“You must be a mem look at your golden hair and blue eyes.” That was Bhagwanti to one of the counsellors. Bhagwanti had a soft corner for Monich a girl in her early twenties, tall and fair, always dressed in slacks or jeans. She would let the girl oil her hair and plait it.
“My Kishore must have found someone like you for himself. I didn’t want to send him abroad. But Kishore as so stubborn; he went on a hunger strike. He wanted to give the agent ten thousand rupees for his passport and visa. Lalaji wouldn’t give him the money. But how could I see my child starving? I sold my jewellery and gave the money to Kishore. Lalaji came to know about it only later. He dared not question me. After all, the jewellery was what my father had given me.
“Does Kishore come to see you? Where is he now?”
“In the last ten years he has not come even once to lndia. I have heard things about him. He has married Mem. And he called his blood parents to London.”
“Blood parents? What does that mean?”
“Kishore was not born from my womb. You know I carry within me arid land. When the mango tree which my saas, my mother-in-law made me plant behind the courtyard, didn’t bear fruit even after five years, I heard hushed whispers around me. Even the champak that I tended with all my love never bloomed. “You are a banjh, a barren woman,” the women silently summed me up with their contemptuous eyes. My saas of course used it as a fond name for me. Nothing will grow on her, the accursed one. Even lice would die in her hair. I have heard her telling the neighbours. But something is now growing in me after all. The cancer… isn’t it?” Bhagwanti chuckled. Such pronouncements! She wouldn’t spare even her own self. How could she be so brutal to herself? A shudder went through Monica.
“Then Kishore is your adopted son?”
“Yes, I adopted him against the wishes of Lalaji. If I had been a little soft, he would have brought home his darling Nandu, born to that slut. My money, my father’s money, was a big boon to me. Lalaji couldn’t take me lightly. A delicately built, mild-mannered man, he wouldn’t have married a sturdy, swarthy woman like me but for my inheritance. I knew that, and made the best use of it. Lalaji sat in baithaks playing cards with young men from the neighbourhood and visited Putli, Nandu’s mother, under the cover of night. I knew everything. I couldn’t care less. But I kept the keys of the tijori to myself. See it is with me even today.” She pulled out a leather satchel from under her pillow, and shook it in front of Monica. The keys clanked a triumphant chime. She opened the bag and brought out a scroll that looked like a parchment and carefully spread it on the bed.
“This is my will. Do you know why that dog comes sniffing around my bed?”
“But Masi, what will you do with your property”? Can you carry it with you? If Nandu gets it or some other relative gets it, what does it matter?” Monica had entered a forbidden territory.
“Why should I give my precious things to that Vaman? Don’t be taken in by his humble looks. He would gladly step on my head and push me down to pataal. I will never ever forgive him. But for him, Lalaji would have loved Kishore. If he had loved Kishore, he wouldn’t have gone away. I pleaded with Lalaji to accept him as his son. But he called him an idiot. He sent his Nandu to college and my Kishore, he said, should train himself as a carpenter. A brand new cycle for Nandu to go to college and no money for Kishore to travel to UK to take up the job of a carpenter! So I gave him all my money, all my jewellery. He got his passport, got his visa, bought his ticket and flew away.”
“And what happened to his blood-parents?”
“He is my brother’s son. So my brother and Bhabhi are his blood-parents, aren’t they? They gave me their baby. They gave life to a barren woman. But what a heavy price I was called to pay! Now Kishore takes care of them, his blood-parents. And the foster mother has become a thing of the past he would rather not own.”
“Then why don’t you make peace with Nandu?”
“Never… I am a mother. It is Kishore who called me mother first and last. I would forgive him anything. My house, my furniture, all the treasures I had hoarded over the years, everything is for him. He will come back. I am waiting for him.”
“What about all those relatives who come to visit you?”
“They are all my Bhabhi’s relatives. They want to fleece me. don’t I know them? The apples and Guava they bring for me, I won’t touch them. Even a worm trapped in them would coil around my neck.”
“Masi, you know how seriously ill you are. Don’t hate people. It will only make you sicker. Why don’t you try to forgive?” Monica was trying to do full justice to the job of a counsellor.
“Forgive those wolves? Never…. They wish evil on me. They are waiting for me to die, to scavenge on my wealth.” Bhagwanti clung to her keys and her bag and screamed. “Mare mere dushman, let my enemies die. Bhagwanti is not going to die. I will give them the surprise of their life….”
SUJATA SANKRANTI. Is a creative writer, literary critic and an academician. She won the prestigious Commonwealth Award for the best short story of the year 1998. She has brought out a volume of short stories titled The Warp and the Weft and other Stories. As an Associate professor and the Vice principal of Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi she has been closely associated with academic, literary and cultural activities of the campus. Currently she is busy working on a family saga in which the members, especially the women, find themselves sucked into the vortex of a ruthless ideological warfare, spanning two nations, India and the erstwhile Soviet Union.