“Move,” the guard shoves me towards my prison cell by the butt of his rifle.
I stumble, steady myself, and look at him piteously, knowing well that no pity or sympathy will be forthcoming from the rock-hard heart and implacably remorseless eyes.
I narrow my eyes and look at my destination, nay destiny. Its dark, dingy, desolate disposition depresses me instantly. I can do nothing about it. That will be my home for the rest of my life - me, a life-convict - not that I committed a crime, but that I loved someone wholeheartedly. That someone has been cruelly snatched away from me. That someone is my wife, my soul mate, my alter ego. I have been condemned to live a life without her.
The clamorous clanging of the cell gate jolts me back into the pitiless present. The heavy bolt is drawn, I am pushed into the cell, and the cell gate is bolted and locked.
My life sentence has just begun.
GONE MATE GONE
I still cannot believe that she is gone. It all feels like a dream. Do I mean “a nightmare”? A moment ago, she was alive although in the ICU, struggling for breath, struggling for life. A moment later, she is dead. It is indeed a very thin, in fact invisible, line separating the states of being alive and of being dead.
Months after that devastating event, I feel that she still is here, hiding somewhere to make a grand entry saying, ‘Darling, I am back.’ However, that is in the realm of a dream. The undeniable fact is she is gone. I know it. It is up to me to accept it and move on with my life, whatever is left of it.
Sitting in my favourite reclining chair with a tankard of chilled beer in hand, I slide back in time.
THE HEALING HAND
I am just staring at the blank LED TV screen. I have nothing to do but just go to bed. I know sleep will elude me. Just as it had been for the last four months, but there is a difference. Earlier, it would not as much as wink at my bleary, tired eyes the whole night. Now, it will elude me until after midnight and then I will sleep for four to five hours, comfortably, no nightmares, no dreams, and no screams, which were so typical of me. Strange as it may sound, it is true. I sleep more peacefully now, after she is gone. It is as though she sings a silent lullaby for me, caresses my hair so that the tension abates, and gently rubs my chest so that the MVP-induced palpitations abate. Is it because she is gone and I no longer have to worry about her? True, I need not worry about her health anymore. However, worrying about her eternal physical absence, watching over her legacies – our two daughters, sons-in-law, three grandchildren, and taking care of the education of our foster granddaughter are entirely different matters; they do worry me. I have to carry on with discharging the responsibilities without her being present beside me; quite daunting tasks, but carry them out fully, I definitely will. She had that kind of confidence in me, and I have that kind of confidence in her confidence.
LIFE AND DEATH
How can a person just vanish from the face of this earth, as if the person had never existed?
What is life? What is death?
These questions have always perturbed me. One second a person is alive, all the senses functioning fully. The next second the same person is dead, all senses ceasing to function! Is a human the senses or the soul? If soul is the permanent entity, which dons another body after relinquishing the previous old body after its ‘death’, how can be a person pronounced dead. A confusing line of thought, is it not? Or, is it a confused line of thought?
The thought of what after has always unnerved me. From birth, we grow up with thoughts, feelings, emotions, and a myriad other sensations. We do not question the how’s and why’s; we take them for granted. They are just there. However, death is an entirely different kettle of fish. Once a person ceases to exist what happens to the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of that person? Where would they go? Do they just disappear? It is scientifically proven that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Are these sensations not some form of energy? It is said even the sounds made by people remain in the atmosphere long after they cease to live, since sound is energy. Is there an “atma”, a soul? What is it in real terms, not abstract expressions like “consciousness”, etc.?
Can words – spoken or written – be prophetic?
To my utter consternation, I realised that they can, as events unfolded themselves during the recent cataclysmic past.
So far, I wrote six novels, forty-odd short stories, about a dozen poems and five episodes of a children’s fantasy adventure series. Each of these is of different genre. Given my fatal attraction to death, is it any wonder that many of my writings dabble in that aspect of life?
The very first paragraph I wrote, as I took the first small step in my journey into the world of writing, was about the death of the protagonist of the story! What an ominous beginning! The story of another novel revolves around how a man brings up his eight-year-old daughter, after the death of his wife.
Then there is a poem where I described the agony of a person whose spouse had died. In another, I wrote vividly how one, separated from one’s beloved, is finding it difficult to continue living. In yet another, the soul of a person, whose body lay on the funeral pyre waiting to be lit, cries ‘I love you’ for his beloved!
Recently, my wife passed away after suffering for an agonising period of four months. In the aftermath of that calamitous, life-shattering, life-altering event, my children and I realised how prophetic some of my spoken words turned out to be! My wife was not taking sufficient essential nutrition, post-surgery. All near and dear literally begged her to eat well. At one stage, I even warned her that she would be taken into the ICU should any complication arise, thinking that the warning would goad her to eating well. A day or two later it really happened; she was taken into the ICU. She did not return alive.
Were my words well-meaning warnings or were they forced through my pen and tongue by God Almighty as prophecies? I shall never know.
Our elders keep telling us not to utter any harsh words for anyone lest the words should turn prophetic and become “curses”. Do words really have such effect, such power?
In this context, I recollect a very deeply philosophical quotation:
Watch your words, they become actions;
Watch your actions, they become habits;
Watch your habits, they become character;
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
That is how powerful, words are. There must be a “sifting mechanism” between our thoughts and our spoken words. Simply put, it means that we must not say everything that comes to our mind. That raises the all-important question, ‘was it wrong of me to have used strong words, however much critical the situation was?’ I leave it to your judgement, while desperately fighting the debilitating feeling that, somehow, my writings are boomeranging on me.
I have an example highlighting the exact opposite.
Panicking at the prospect of losing my soul mate of forty years, I hurriedly wrote a long paragraph, purportedly of a future story of mine, wherein I sanguinely described the wheeling of my wife into the ward after a successful surgery, while she announces, “Shyam, I am back...”
She did not come back.
This argument is further bolstered by an anecdote from a novel by the famous Somerset Maugham. His invalid hero, who walks with the help of a walking stick, tries his hand at positive thinking. One night, he goes to sleep trying to think himself into becoming a normal person. In the morning, he finds the world beautiful…and walks out of his home with the help of his walking stick!
So much for prophetic words.
THE SUMANGALI SYNDROME
“Sir, I want one sari used by the late madam.” That is the request from our washerwoman.
Traditional Indian women are fixated on passing away as sumangali, which means predeceasing their husbands, however propitious their own careers are. Hence, a personal thing, like a sari, used by a woman, who passes away as sumangali, is considered a sacred talisman, which helps them to attain the stage of passing away as sumangali.
This might have its genesis in the societal conditions of yore when a woman had no role except as the wife of a man. She had no right to education or property. She had no career except as a wife. What happens to such a woman if her husband predeceases her? One, only alternative to living a life of hell as a widow, was to commit sati, a heinous social practice, which Raja Ram Mohan Roy fought against.
My elder daughter has been telling me about this sumangali obsession. Perhaps it is difficult for a man to understand it. Although I have seen a fair share of the traumatic lives led by my mother, sisters, mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, and a few other relatives, surprisingly it was only after the passing away of my wife as a sumangali that I realise the significance.
Ever since her childhood, she seems to have been obsessed with the idea of departing from this world as a sumangali, more so after our marriage, although she never expressed it aloud. All her religious activities and rituals unequivocally and unwaveringly pointed to the fixation. Not that she refused to lead a normal life, quite the contrary; she enjoyed life to the hilt. She experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of life. She never complained but just accepted whatever fate threw her way.
I AM ALONE
“Am I an arrogant and difficult person to live with?” I ask my wife.
Looking amusedly from her hospital bed – she is convalescing from a major surgery – she counters, “Why do you feel so?”
“Take the present scenario; you have undergone a major surgery. I would expect to be flooded with phone calls, SMSs, e-mails, whatnot? It isn’t happening. Barring a couple of relatives, no one even bothered to SMS me. I …”
She interrupted me, with a smile, of course.
“This is the problem with you; you take every small thing to heart. I have been married to you for what, forty years now?”
“Thirty-nine; Fortieth anniversary falls next month. I have plans…”
“Okay, okay. Listen. You are anything but arrogant. In fact, you are polite to a fault.”
“You are a self-made person and brook no nonsense, be it official life or personal life. Initially, I had some problem adjusting to you but when I understood you for what you are, I had the smoothest of sailings.”
“Why do people feel I’m arrogant and difficult to live with? I am all alone in this world.”
“Firstly, you are not alone; our daughters and their families are there, and I am with you. What others feel about you is their perception and they do not live with you, I do. They find it difficult to adjust to someone like you, who is down-to-earth simple, whose needs are simple, whose wants are few and far between, and who speaks his mind. You are a complete family man, devoted to family and children…”
It was my turn to interrupt.
She blushed. “You pampered me like even my dad didn’t.”
“As long as I am with you, you are never alone.”
Now, she is not with me.
What about me? Am I alone?
I am utterly despondent, and directionless. Above all, I am hopelessly alone. That is the effect of my forty years’ life with her. I cannot speak for them but I understand the void the innumerable widows and widowers must be feeling after losing their spouses. I salute their courage, and resilience. I wish I could borrow some of the qualities from them, so that I can live on until my time comes.
INSECURITY ad infinitum
A sixty-six-year-old man feels insecure!
He must have just retired.
Nothing new, he retired six years ago; still feels insecure.
He must be having some health problems.
He has long-standing Mitral Valve Prolapse (MVP); he is used to it now.
His finances are low or investments have taken a hit during the recent recession.
He has no bank balance worth mentioning; his pension disappears mid-month. Investments? You must be joking!
Then, what? His wife must be seriously ill.
(Pause) You are getting close.
Some incurable disease?
His wife died.
What do you say about a fifty-seven-year-old woman who dies after she undergoes a life-saving surgery for a life-threatening ailment with the fond hope of getting better, eating better, living better?
Fate? Destiny? Karma? Cosmic writ?
A cruel joke perpetrated on an unsuspecting family. Nothing less.
Was the decision wrong? No, there was no other option.
Were the surgeons at fault? No, nothing was left untried.
I do not know; you tell me.
Did she stop living?
Did she brood over her ill health?
Did she stop loving life?
She was the epitome of courage, resilience, and ebullience.
Then, why should the old man feel insecure?
The old man, her husband, feels insecure because she was the epitome of courage, resilience, and ebullience.
I don’t understand.
You nincompoop, she was his strength. Over the forty years of their married life, he came to depend on her for these very qualities.
Moron, she has passed away.
Yeah, oh! Where from will he draw the courage, the resilience, and the ebullience to carry on with the rest of his life?
You are right.
Of course I am.
No wonder he feels insecure.
No wonder he feels vulnerable.
Where, in his life or in our discussion?
His wife, his soul mate of forty years passed away. There is no next, as I see it.