When the message arrived in his phone that evening, it was worded with the laconic urgency of an old-fashioned telegram. It read, “Father critical, come soon.” Santosh had lost no time in setting out. He threw a few essentials into a suitcase, messaged Mita who was still in office at that late hour and took the first flight out of the country.
As Santosh settled into his seat in the aircraft, a host of feelings competed for supremacy in his heart. Guilt, self-exoneration, concern and impatience pushed their way to the fore. When the seat belt sign came on, he buckled on his own and thought with a sigh: if only one could strap one’s problems and worries the turbulent patches in life may seem less rough.
How many times had Mita urged him to visit his family back home, especially his father, but he had always put it off over something or the other with varied priorities staking claim on his time and attention. An imminent transfer, a recent promotion, one or the other of Sonny’s important examinations, Pinky’s marriage, followed by her messy divorce, Mita’s occasional hospitalizations; the list was endless.
And all this while, the people back at home had been there, doing fine on all accounts. They even became unreal somehow as they languished on the margins of a self-imposed amnesia. They appeared small and wraith-like in their interactions on a far off continent many jetlagged hours away. A trip back home was like that proverbial letter, unopened and pushed back under a pile of more pressing mail, duly unattended in the modern malaise of forgetfulness.
A small voice intoned in Santosh’s head, mingling with the air hostess’s routine, “If the cabin pressure drops please pull down the oxygen mask over your head…” Really, how many times had father pulled the oxygen mask down for him and helped him put it on? He had not kept a count, he just knew that each time this had been done his life had steadied and he had landed safely having reached his destination.
“In the unlikely event of an unscheduled landing please take the emergency exits…” the air hostess went on with the drill. Santosh had indeed taken the emergency exit that day for he had simply, and without warning, dropped out of his regular life; changing his familiar, hectic schedule upon finding it suddenly rocked with an imminent tragedy.
Once, only once, you have done this, my friend, the voice in his head continued.
Well, I’m doing it now even if it’s rare, and better late than never; he countered the voice within him as he leaned back in his seat, eyes closed.
He took a cab home, his sister Bulu was waiting for him. With his father’s Alzheimer’s deteriorating, it had become impossible for Bulu to continue caring for him at home. It had become a nightmare, ensuring his personal safety in the gathering vacuum of his progressive memory loss. She had had him admitted to a hospice where he received medical care round the clock.
Santosh wheeled in his suitcase and stood in the hallway, looking at Bulu with an anxious, questioning glance. He adjusted his spectacles nervously. Bulu led him to the drawing room.
“He’s been deteriorating steadily this past year,” she began, “to the extent that he failed to recognize me since about a month back. But he kind of carried on with the lows and highs,” Bulu went on matter-of-factly. “Yesterday afternoon, however, we had quite a scare as he seemed to have slipped into a coma, he was not responding to our calls and nudges. I had Dr. Verma see him…”
Basanti, the cook, interrupted Bulu, “Didi, shall I fry the kachuris now?” Her eyes tried to assess the stranger with a quick, sideways look.
Bulu nodded before turning to Santosh. “Dr. Verma changed the medication and he came around,” she finished, rolling her eyes up, in relief.
“This pulling through, I guess, is a temporary thing, right?” Santosh asked, maneuvering his trolley into a corner. Bulu gave a blank look, the gravity of the situation was not lost.
Then, as an afterthought she remarked, “Aren’t all recoveries temporary?”
“I realize it’s touch and go, or else you would not have sent that message,” Santosh responded..
“Wash up, grab a bite and we shall go over to the hospice,” said Bulu as she turned to give instructions to Basanti who was hovering about. As an afterthought, she asked Santosh, “Or would you prefer to rest today and visit him tomorrow?”
“No, of course not!” said Santosh. “I don’t want to waste any more time, I should have done this long ago,” he added in a small voice.
“You won’t be able to recognize him,” Bulu warned. “He is all skin and bones, his face has changed, his hair, all the white has thinned considerably.”
Santosh nodded. He swallowed the incipient lump in his throat.
They jolted along in the car to the hospice which was on the outskirts. Rolling hillocks of real estate stood on both sides of the road. Some of his acquaintances back in New Jersey had booked fancy flats and villas in these prime properties. Though why they did that, was beyond him as few of them visited their relatives in the old country that regularly. Fewer had plans of long term stay or permanent return.
He noticed that some of the towers seemed to touch the clouds. An architect, Santosh automatically hoped these buildings had proper emergency exits as he idly took them in.
No one spoke for the rest of the journey and the car drew up in front of the hospice. The facility consisted of a couple of buildings, housed within a spacious compound.
They entered the first building. Bulu spoke to the lady at the reception briefly and then they made their way across expanses of tiled floors, towards what he assumed was father’s room. Santosh’s throat constricted with a diverse set of emotions. He had last seen father… how many years ago now? It was nearly fifteen years ago when he had come down for his mother’s funeral.
Bulu led him into a big, square room with four beds and a nurses’ station at its centre. The lone nurse, who was keeping watch at that hour motioned Bulu to come over to her desk. Bulu hurried towards her, anxious.
Santosh looked towards the cots, two of them were unoccupied. He scanned the patients in the remaining two quickly and went towards father. There he was, frail and wasted beneath the sheet, a stubble covering his changed features. Bulu was right. His shock of white hair had thinned, everything was somehow different.
Santosh reached father’s side and looked down at him. Father truly was unrecognizable. He put out a hand and touched his shoulder lightly. Father stirred and opened his eyes. Santosh had not expected to be recognized. Yet, somewhere within him a door banged shut.
“I’m Shantu,” he called out a trifle lamely. “Your son, Shantu, come all the way from America to see you,” he added, leaning towards the figure on the bed, hoping to spark a flicker of recognition in the vacant eyes of the old man.
Father stared at him blankly. He parted his lips, with some difficulty and asked “Shantu?”
“Yes, Shantu,” Santosh cried eagerly.
He pulled up a chair by the bedside, dropped into it heavily and took his father’s hand. He would try to evoke a spark in the old man, however feeble. He couldn’t possibly return without a glimmer of recognition on his father’s part. He stroked the gaunt, wrinkled hand trying all the while to establish a subtle circuitry of currents between the two of them.
Father was hanging on by a thread. Santosh realized with a pang that this thread, attenuated to a frail filament had come to resemble his relationship with him. The cord that used to tie them together so securely had, over the years, been reduced to this wispy yarn that was liable to snap at any moment. He shuddered involuntarily as he thought of the trapdoor that could open any minute to claim the unsuspecting figure lying peacefully.
He had fallen asleep, his breathing shallow and raspy. Santosh had a sudden and unaccountable longing to enter his father’s world, far as it was from his, and wander the by-lanes of slumber with him just as he had once ridden with him on his bicycle down the twisting trails of their country retreat.
He could see Bulu coming towards them, a nurse in tow. To his surprise she headed towards the other bed and laid her hand on the patient’s shoulder. The patient was lying on his side, his back towards him. Poor thing, Santosh thought. He has no visitor today, that’s why Bulu is trying to cheer him up probably, the kind soul that she is.
He was about to adjust the bedclothes on his father when Bulu called out to him impatiently.
“What are you doing there? Have you already visited Father? He’s here, in this bed,” she emphasized pointing to the figure in that bed. She sounded both irate and perplexed.
Santosh looked down at the ground. He bit his lip. How could he have made such a mistake?
Bulu looked at him for a few seconds, astounded, as the truth dawned on her.
“You actually could not recognize him?” she cried incredulously. The dam of irritation, carefully preserved in her over the years, threatened to give way.
Santosh flushed at his sister’s voice. He brushed at an imaginary speck on his shirt, visibly embarrassed and uncomfortable. He wished there was an emergency exit nearby through which he could escape the situation.
The nurse who was staring at the floor, looked up. “Looks like early signs of Alzheimer’s,” she said with kindness. Santosh could not decide whether that was a taunt, a jest or an earnest observation.
A The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop Piece
Dr. Ajanta Paul is an academician, administrator, critic, poet and author, currently Principal & Professor at Women’s Christian College, Kolkata, India. She has published several books of criticism and imaginative literature including The Elixir Maker and Other Stories in 2019.
Dr. Paul has published her poetry extensively in print magazines and online journals including Setu Bilingual Journal and Teesta Review: A Journal of Poetry and her short stories in The Statesman.