Desert Rain

“I wish it were a dream, doctor!” said a nervous father to Dr. Jagdish Kapoor, the famous neurologist. “And then I would wake up to find him sleeping beside me”.

Dr. Jagdish Kapoor silently studied the blank stare of the man sitting opposite to him in his chamber. The man was lost in thought. He thought of his only son Anuj who would undergo a critical operation the next day which would either give him a new life or surrender him to the evil clutches of death…..

Removal of two brain cysts involved incredible risks!

Six years after Abhay Agarwal’s wife, Sunita had passed away; the poor man was yet again caught in the cruel web of fate. How was he to know that 13-year old Anuj had been living with the two cysts in his brain for almost ten months now?

On Thursday night, while packing his schoolbag, Anuj felt a sudden sharp pain on the right hand side of his head. The piercing pain made him collapse on the floor of his bedroom and objects started getting blurred before his eyes, and then it was all dark.…

He woke up to find to find himself on the hospital bed while his tearful father sat next to him. A doctor was checking Anuj’s pulse.

Anuj’s neuro-diagnosis revealed that the cysts had developed in the temporal lobe of his brain. Furthermore, Dr. Kapoor had said that more than ninety-five percent of the brain cysts turned out to be malignant if not detected in proper time and chances of the patient falling into a coma were highly probable, and here was Anuj, surviving blissfully with the two cysts in his brain for the last nine months and 21 days!

The report also revealed that Anuj’s intra-cranial pressure was pretty high and according to Dr. Kapoor, this could cause further damage to the brain.

While signing the bond, Mr. Agarwal, feeling a lump in his throat, asked the doctor, “Will he have to undergo the operation tomorrow itself, doctor? Tomorrow is Anuj’s birthday.”

Dr. Kapoor reached out across the table to firmly hold the man’s trembling hands. He replied, “Look Mr. Agarwal, this is a serious case and Anuj’s condition is getting worse every single day. This sounds harsh but I can’t help it. We can’t let the cysts cause further damage to the brain. On our part, we’ll try our best, I promise. Let God decide the rest. Have faith in His wonders and He will not let you down. I have faith in Him”.

Wiping a stream of uncontrollable tears with his handkerchief, Mr. Agarwal shifted his gaze and stared at the small heart-shaped table clock on the doctor’s table that had just struck six in the evening. “Fourteen more hours to go and Anuj would be in the operation theatre, fighting for dear life”, he thought.

The nearby Shiv temple, visible from the doctor’s window, shone with lights decorating it. The resounding bells and conch shells from the temple indicated the evening prayer. Scores of people entered and came out of the age old temple. Anuj loved the big olive tree that stood beside the temple entrance. Every Sunday, Mr. Agarwal would drive to the temple with Anuj. During winters, Anuj would bring a small bag and fill it up with olives. He loved olives. He used to prepare bowlfuls of lip-smacking chutney out of them.

After the sudden and unexpected death of Sunita, a grief-stricken Mr. Agarwal had sought refuge in his son’s happiness. Taking up a mother’s place, was a mammoth task. But the man had been successful in being both a father and a mother to the child. And now that he and Anuj had built a strong cocoon of love, understanding and empathy, fate took a violent turn.

Standing up to leave the doctor’s chamber, Mr. Agarwal asked in a broken voice, “Will my son live, doctor?” Dr. Kapoor simply nodded with a forced smile, trying to look confident. Looking older than forty-five, Mr. Agarwal went out of the doctor’s chamber and closed the door behind him.

Strangely enough, he did not go to see his son who was already hospitalized and waiting to be held in his father’s embrace perhaps for the last time. He simply directed his footsteps out of the hospital gate. Brushing away leaves that had fallen on the roof of the Ford Ikon, he entered into the car and drove away. While driving, he kept mumbling to himself. Having reached home, he parked his car and without halting to answer a volley of questions thrown by the maid, straightaway rushed to his room and locked himself up. He pulled the curtains and switched on the light. Mr. Agarwal wanted to think, recollect old memories of Anuj’s childhood. He brought out some photographs of Anuj from the cupboard and flipped through them, occasionally caressing little Anuj in his individual photos. “My son!” he sighed. Sadly, he put away the photographs and prayed silently.

Somewhere in the corner of his aching heart, he had suppressed a million tears, emotional outbursts, misgivings and fears that predominate over other feelings when circumstances as such are forced upon the normal human being. Dr. Kapoor’s words kept ringing in his ears, “Anuj’s condition is getting worse every single day.”

Every word was like a thousand daggers stabbing at his heart, making it bleed incessantly. He wanted to scream his lungs out; he wanted to sob in agony but thought better of it. He refused to touch a morsel of food. Locked up in his room, all he could gather in his disturbed mind was memories of happy times…..

As the clock struck midnight, he silently wished, “Happy Birthday, my son. This is the first time you aren’t beside me on your birthday.” He prayed again, but this time, with renewed energy and a flicker of hope amidst the clouds of despair, uncertainty and sorrow.

He lay down but sleep was miles away from him. Throughout the night, he kept tossing and turning on his bed, counting every minute that was slipping away………..

The next morning, he drove to the hospital at around eight. Nimble and trembling footsteps were directed towards the operation theatre. The operation was about to begin at eight sharp and he knew that he was late. The doors of the operation theatre were closing like a story coming to its end. He screamed, “Wait! I want to see Anuj, please wait! Please……!”

His screams became fainter and fainter till they died away like a sforzandie. Gradually, it turned dark. Someone was shaking him vigorously. “Dad! Wake up, there you are! Dreaming again!” were perhaps the sweetest words he had ever heard. They were like a drizzle on a desert that had forgotten the taste of water for years……….

‘Whom dost thou worship…?’

Durga, the invincible, the embodiment of power and prowess, the very mention of whose name generates fear in the eyes of the demon, the symbol of an enlightened woman who has form and is yet formless, is the most revered Goddess in Hinduism. She creates, preserves and annihilates. She is the enchantress, the symbol of the combined all-encompassing strength of heaven and earth. She is the storm that lashes against evil, nipping it in the bud. Durga, the protector of her children, Durga, the destroyer of evil on earth!

But Durga is not just a vision of the tall, towering clay idol that we worship with deepest regards, she is the mother we despise and disrespect every day, the illiterate sister in an almost semi-urban household, whose brother boasts of his educational qualifications, the well-educated wife whose chauvinist husband is averse to the idea of her going out to work in case she outshines him. She is the sorrow in the form of a baby girl whose parents had prayed for a son. She is the stranger on the streets, in the bus or the train, whose vulnerability we so readily take for granted and commit all sorts of atrocities on her and almost rip her pounding heart apart! She is the daughter whose parents are sceptical of sending her out to study or work for fear of prowling ogres waiting just outside to pounce on her.

She is a small town girl whose battle for survival forces her to manage an entire shop selling articles of daily use, the sole bread winner of her poor family, and we, the society are critical of a young girl sitting at a shop, we who have nothing to provide except criticism and disapproval, we who would refuse to inspire her to dream and yet drag her as a topic into our fruitless gossip and share a smirk among ourselves.

She is the young bride who is incinerated by her greedy in-laws for her inability to furnish the colossal dowry amount demanded by them.

She is the young widow who is forced to accept white as the only colour of her life because her husband is dead. We choose what she should eat to stay alive and deprive her of all the comforts that we think only we deserve.

Why change the established norms of social behaviour even at the cost of a woman’s right to happiness? Why tolerate a woman’s ‘audacity’ to break the barriers of superstitions and rules that make her life miserable? Why let her rise above the petty human beliefs into a higher realm of power, wisdom and greatness?

Why worship Durga? Why place flowers of numerous colours and fragrances at her feet, why offer her the chosen fruits and vegetables, sing in her glory, bow down before her in an act of reverence, chant unintelligible incantations before a fire in praise of her heroism? Unintelligible they are, since most of them are beyond our levels of comprehension, and because they are only meant for those four days of devoted worship, post which the books are pushed aside, the reverence forgotten and we are back to the dirt, to the real monsters we are, to a reality where Durga is only an immersed idol whose glory dissolves with the dissolving clay model in the blackened waters of human pomp and show.

And still every year our hearts are filled with joy at the prospect of Durga’s arrival. Who are we? Hypocrites who put up a fake show of our devotion before the Goddess and stab her from behind? Devils in sheep’s clothing making a mockery of our own set of rituals and ceremonial offerings?

A restless society devoid of the fundamentals of humanity does not deserve to celebrate and spend lavishly for empty reasons. How do we call ourselves a civilized nation when we cannot ensure the safety and freedom of the women of our land?

I would rather think of us as embodiments of the legendary ‘Mahishasura’ underneath the lotus feet of the Goddess begging for mercy, for one last chance to reform ourselves.

Durga puja should be celebrated only when we learn to give a woman her rightful place in our society. Only when we learn to sympathize with the mother, the sister, the baby girl, the daughter, the stranger, the bride and the widow, should we get the right to celebrate Durga puja.

We are to reform, to re-establish, to restructure and to reawaken the society which is slumbering presently, and give our women the happiness they deserve and only then can we worship Durga in all her magnificence.

 

Where the clear stream of glory has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

(Rabindranath Tagore)

Of dreams unfulfilled…

A seemingly melodramatic ending of a life ushered in a variety of opinions and interpretations as to what might have led to a girl’s unexpected suicide. The industrial but sleepy town of Digboi had suddenly jerked awake, opening its eyes wide to witness the death of a seventeen year old girl in some remote corner of the town in a gloomy morose by-lane which displayed a crowd of dilapidated, ramshackle houses, each frail one held painstakingly together with bits and pieces of rotten bamboo sticks. Every shower left behind a mark in the disguise of dirt and mud sticking to your shoes if you ever visited the lane.

The evening of 14th January, 2012 set off a babble of tongues once the neighbours got to know about the suicide and embarked upon the idea of spreading the news far and wide, thus fuelling creative minds to fire their imagination further and spin yarns of numerous colours.

“Oh! Didn’t you know, the girl always disliked her father!” said one while someone else opined, “Probably she was mentally ill. Like I care, you know!! But I knew this would happen someday.”

My dear, this is the contrast between things – one, when death comes on its own and two, when you call death to yourself. A natural death turns into a cause for sorrow and mourning and a death as hers invites suspicions and stories. Little do the onlookers care that death in any form is simply death, a stage which every mortal has to embrace one day, death, which is inevitable, death, which wipes you off the face of the earth as though you were no more significant than rats burrowing in the floor!

The eerie stench coming from the dark room that housed the stupendous feat slowly mingled with the foul air outside in a sombre harmony with the dark ambient night and cast a gloom over the dirt-filled lane.

Around fifty people had gathered just outside the house of Soumen Roy, the unfortunate father of seventeen-year old Mouli. As if the news of Mouli’s death was not enough for them to brood over, most of the people tried a sneak peek through the bamboo hut to catch a fleeting glimpse of the salwar-clad body of the girl hanging by her dupatta from the ceiling. It was a gruesome sight for the soft-hearted. But for the rest, yet another tale was taking shape.

Of all the people who had heard or witnessed yet another unnatural death, there was not one who could feel or even so much as understand the pangs of a father whose tears washed away the silent hopes and dreams he had harboured for his only daughter.

Day in and day out he had vendored in the fierce rays of the burning sun, selling articles of daily use, with a bicycle to give him silent company. But it was always so heavily loaded with the stuff that he could hardly ever ride it. Slogging alongside the two-wheeler, he was no better than the beast of burden, clothed in a pair of dusty, worn-out pants, a shirt that showed signs of ageing and shoes that needed some immediate mending.

He worked harder than can be imagined for the love of his daughter around whom revolved his lonely world. He strove to bring a smile to her pale lips, if only she would for once flash a smile that reached her eyes! The poor girl’s fate was skillfully shaped during her childhood by her mother when the wretched woman performed an unmotherly act by stealing her daughter’s pair of gold earrings and slipping away before dawn broke. The next morning the father and the daughter woke up to find the woman gone. A frantic but futile search followed. At last the poor child was rendered motherless with only a shattered father nursing her and concealing his own tears so as not to let his daughter break down further.

Through her growing years, her father provided her all that she had desired for or at least wished for. It was painfully difficult for the part of a vendor as such to fulfil every wish of his beloved daughter, but everyday he struggled for that extra little which could help him save enough by the time Dusshera arrived, to buy a dress for the girl and do a little further than making ends meet. His profound love for the apple of his eyes was further manifested in his tremendous desire to get her to study in a school.

But now, sitting beside the lifeless remains, he felt all his dreams leave him like a garment stripped off a body. The girl had proved him wrong in his calculations. Years of toil and wishful hard work had resulted in the sudden collapse of faith, trust and dream that was ostensibly reachable. Battered and shamed by the clattering of curious tongues and harrowed by rumours popping up their ugly heads, the poor man strove to get an autopsy done. Cradling his child, he led her to the crematorium, helped by four other men, unwilling and yet showing signs of apathetic sympathy towards the duo.

Silently, the father watched the cruel flames gobble up his daughter’s body, which had already started to decompose because of the delay in the autopsy. The fire gulped down with it, not just the corpse but the father’s aching heart which had once been home to a small dream in some corner of it…

Autumnal feelings galore…

 

The fragrance of the newly blossomed seuli flowers reaches me on a mid-October morning and makes my head spin. The sound of the distant dholkis playing to their heart’s content, fills my ears and makes my heart flutter with the prospect of joy tip-toeing into my mind…

It’s Durga puja!! The much awaited Goddess of immeasurable strength, the resplendent Durga is back! Eyes glistening, her ten armoured-hands radiating energy, indicative of glory and indomitable, unsurpassable power – she is the creator, destroyer and saviour. She is the mother, the enchantress, the symbol of the combined all-encompassing strength of heaven and earth. She is the storm that lashes against evil, nipping it in the bud. Almost squashing the ripped open chest of the demon beneath with a monstrous grimace on its face reflecting the excruciating agony within, Durga proclaims victory, her eyes resembling two purest forms of diamonds declaring the taste of sweet conquest! All hail the demon-slayer!

The rustic dholkis imported from Kolkata, are playing non-stop to please Her Majesty, with their amazing energy-filled and refilled muscles, despite the frail, lean and lanky bodies carrying the huge and overweight drums on their half-bent backs!

For me, this is my 28th Durga puja! Its feels wonderful to realize that 26 autumns of my life have passed by in my hometown Digboi and yet every year, the autumn season holds a different meaning for me. Reiterating an anonymous line that keeps me energized, “I am not afraid of growing old; I am excited about growing as I get older”. But of course, I would prefer to stay young as long as possible.

I look back to as far as my memory remains vivid and find almost cinematically black and white pictures of my childhood race back to my mind, just like the movies of the 1940s’. I see myself wearing a white laced frock with a bowl in my hand, bending over in our garden to pick up the fallen seuli flowers, carefully avoiding the soiled ones. I make sure the bowl is full.

I see myself rushing indoors, rummaging through my mother’s belongings and her precious decorative elements to find the needle case in which there are at least twenty-five differently sized needles. I choose the thinnest and after battling for around fifteen minutes, finally manage to thread its eye and race back to the garden. I pick up the flowers one by one, neatly threading them, and make a beautiful garland…

And then my memory fades into blackness and I am back to my present self again.

A visit to the nearest pandal is all that we look forward to – early morning baths, the undecidedness of what to wear for the first day, Saptami. What could be the perfect dress for Saptami? Something that is not overtly gorgeous and yet beautiful and of course eye-catching!

Dresses almost galore, pouring in from all sides – pishis and mashis pampering you to the extreme unless they are married!! What do you think they are for?

Entering the pandal premises, girls nervously look around, not for the Goddess but for other girls who, they fear, may turn out to be more beautiful and of course, ‘eye-catching’! “Ah! I should have worn the blue liner I bought recently, I would have looked better than that girl over there, huh!” says the envious look on a girl’s face.

Scattered all over and running helter-skelter, pushing and punching around occasionally creating shockwaves are little children shooting away with their irritating little toy-guns, causing a huge disturbance and annoyance to the Brahmins with flaring nostrils chanting away slokas, engaged in the puja proceedings.

In some corner, a group of old, weathered and wrinkled women squat on the matted floor, staring blankly at the Goddess. Their fallen hopes and failing energies find mention in their liquid eyes and nearly-diluted eyeballs within.  The thin lines and dark circles coupled with crow’s feet beneath their eyes, their hair all awry give them a somewhat grotesque look. The smoke bellowing from the burning coir offered to the deity, waters the eyes even more.

There is another group that comprises a heterogeneous mixture of the newly married women teamed up with the middle-aged women, decked up from head to toe, nose rings flashing, and mascara-painted eyelashes heavy under the sheer weight of the dried vicious black liquid!

A group of youth smoke away, maintaining a safe distance from the more devoted lot and busily chit-chat about something more interesting than the puja, occasionally commenting on female passers-by who look at them with a glare in the eye and joy in the heart – yes! I know I look awesome but who cares about you fellows, you good-for-nothing wimps!

In yet another corner is a group of men – another heterogeneous pack that stick together as if frightened of getting lost in the crowd! This group, despite its glamour-less, lacklustre properties, is the one that steals the show. They are a group consisting of young men (the decent ones) wearing kurta-punjabis with neatly combed hair that smells of some retch-inducing sickening oil.

Also in the group are thin and fragile-looking old men wearing dhotis that look new and yet fail to give them the desired lustre. The signs of age overlapping their efforts to stay youthful, are already vivid and prominent with patches of white hair all over their heads that present a pretty dismal picture altogether. It is as if a desperate attempt to hold together bits and pieces that are falling apart is quite an upheaval task for them!

However, the last ones in the group to find mention are the most interesting of them all! They are the middle-aged men that almost pass muster.

Despite themselves, there is a certain shadow of gloom on their faces marring their well-dressed babu-moshai image! With their wallets almost emptied of their rightful occupant (money), and their bonuses gone into buying expensive sarees and jewels for their ever-demanding wives, what do you expect them to celebrate about?

While on the row to their left, sit their chirpy wives in lurid green and yellow and pink sarees, busily chatting, complaining, complimenting, commenting, and laughing sadistically. The Goddess of Shakti finds her inimical representation in these elegantly dressed ladies.

Their husbands, miserable fellows, in stark contrast, quietly stare at the colossal deity and silently mourn over their losses. Bitter icing on bitter cake!

These men are hen-pecked, weather-beaten, flying saucers-hit husbands! They are inarguably the show-stoppers – the earning and suffering lot and not surprisingly, the most heart-rending of them all.

The Goddess on her part, looks down upon them and marvels at Her creation… what a versatile little world it is, She must be thinking. But Durga knows better than that, She stands there with the ‘ashura’, the demon beneath her, while She smiles at the joys, the tears, the complaints and the compliments, the fashion and the foibles, the stupidity of man in stark contrast to Her wisdom. She witnesses it all, silent yet magnanimous!

All I do is pay my regards to Her magnificence and return home – Om Shanti! Om Shanti! Om Shanti!