Saturday, September 25, 2010

Spreading Wings

It was a normal November morning. When the alarm rang it was five thirty. Ram had to get up. He put on his shirt and went out closing the door behind him. His wife Lakshmi would wake up now hearing the creaking noise. While going down the stairs he felt an unusual heaviness in his head. He tried to walk briskly assuming it to be after-effects of sleep. Milk vendor was only five minutes away. Heaviness in his had increased when he returned with daily quota of two litres of milk. When his wife brought him tea, he wanted to tell her about the mild headache. It may not be the best thing to tell her on a Monday morning. It may upset her. A bad omen for the week. He kept quiet.
Half an hour later Lakshmi went to his bed to wake him up. He had to take care of their two children while she prepared breakfast and lunch for all of them. Within next forty minutes children had to be at the bus stop. This was the routine. Why is he lazy today? She was getting angry, but controlled herself. In spite of her repeated calls he did not get up.
In the Government run Wellington Hospital, the doctors at the emergency ward told her the best: he is alive. He was admitted to the Hospital, and was in coma. She had to answer repeated queries of doctors, nurses, patients, friends and colleagues. She did not know what happened to him. The doctors tried their best. They also did not know.

Ram and Lakshmi were from southern most part of India, Tamil Nadu. Only a few of their friends knew they belonged to Thiruchendur. Others could not even pronounce the name of the place. Geographically and culturally it was three thousand kilometres away. Lakshmi took leave for 15 days initially, but had to take more and more. He was on saline and became thin. Lakshmi had to look after the children, go to the hospital and return to the house receive the children from school and then rush to the Hospital to be with him the whole night. Next day she would repeat the same routine. The next day and the next. There was no change in his condition even after one month. He was there like a dried vegetable.
Ram’s family was big. They were four brothers and two sisters. Now and then She had to inform them of the progress of his recovery. But there was no good news. There was no recovery at all. His elder brother, Swamy came to see him. More than a month has passed. They were not sure now. His mother and father arrived for discussion. They could not understand what the doctors were briefly telling them. They could not talk to the nurses as they did not understand Hindi or English. Family’s business was suffering. They could not stay here longer. Brother’s health is important but money too is important. They imported wooden logs from South East Asia distributed in the district.
They decided that Ram could be admitted to a local hospital in Thiruchendur and whole family would support them in their hour of distress. If not in need what for is such a large family they reasoned. By this time, Lakshmi had also exhausted herself in taking care of Ram, children and in-laws and the relations who visited occasionally. Uncertain future was staring at her. He was taken on a plane to Chennai and then on car to the native place. She and the children reached there by train. It was third month of his coma. She was not sure whether he is dead or alive. For all practical purposes she was alone. She had spent most of her savings. In-laws spent money only on his treatment. They provided her and her children food and shelter but not money. For the first time in her thirty-six years she felt the need for money.
Not that her family was rich. They were not poor. Her father passed away when she was nineteen. Her mother worked in a private limited company. They could survive. She was the only child of her parents. Her mother Santhamma, had died two years before. There were murmurs in the in-laws house that she was going through a bad phase. An astrologer was consulted and he confirmed that Saturn was causing the troubles. To alleviate the ill effects of Saturn, a Puja was arranged. She was made to bow down to the sacred priest and the idol and many other rituals that she simply did with obedience and piety. There was no improvement in his condition.
Laksmi’s children, Ganesh was eight and his sister Kamla was six. They had to discontinue their studies in Delhi. They were admitted to a local school. They were staying in one of the rooms in the big house. Ram was admitted to a Hospital for two months. There was no improvement in his condition. Elders decided that he may be maintained in the house itself. She thought a nurse would be engaged. Lakshmi had to be with him and she became the nurse, slave and wife. She sometimes went to the kitchen for work and talk. She observed the pulse of the family there. His brothers rarely talked to her and their wives told her their versions of life in the house. Nothing was comforting in this place.
One day she happened to be in the front portion of the house and postman delivered a letter addressed to her. She frantically opened the letter. It was sixth reminder from her office that if she does not join within fifteen days, disciplinary action would be taken against her. She was taken aback. How heartless her office people were? She also could not understand if they had already sent five letters where were they? She had not seen any of them. She wanted to ask every one of them. She could ask only the ladies in the house. None of them were aware of the letters. Were they pretending? She was not sure. Should she ask father-in-law or her brothers-in-law? She could only ask her sister-in-law in husky voice. She also did not know.
There was no one to confide. She was worried. What will happen to her? Would she end up like other wives in the house? Doing household chores and within the four walls of the house. All men think alike about women. She had dreamed of reaching high position in her office. Ram, after initial hesitation and after reckoning economic returns, had also supported her efforts. Now, all that was going down the drains. She was not free to think. In-laws were thinking and she had to obey. One of her brothers-in-law, Mahesh, she was aware, spent most of his time in the house or cinema theatres, libraries or in the illegal bars. He appeared to be educated, seemed to have better disposition towards her, though everyone in the house was cursing his behaviour. She could not understand why he was like the way he was. May be he disliked the family business like Ram. May be he also had a dream of doing something that he liked.
One day her father-in-law called her. She apprehended that something has gone wrong. He had spoken to her very rarely and only when it was absolutely necessary. May be he has the bad news they were all expecting. But that was not to be. In low tone and husky voice he told her that he has spent more than two lakh rupees and there were difficulties in arranging for more money that is required for continuing to look after his son. It was a hint she understood. They were asking whether she could pay for the expenditure.

She has not received her salary for months. His salary was also stopped long ago. How could she manage? She tried to fathom the secrets of the house through sisters-in-law. There was a feeling in the family that too much money is being spent on Ram. It had to be stopped before it is too late. Otherwise they would be ruined. If Ram’s treatment continues who will spend? Have they lost hope on his recovery? Sometimes there was a talk of the family taking care of him and bearing the burden. But they remained silent about her and her children. She felt left alone in the world. She was an orphan in his house.
She thought of the Indian joint family as one of the strong points of India. That appeared to be on paper and in discussions and not in practice. When it comes to money, everybody thinks of his or her welfare alone. For the first time she thought it to be a mistake to bring him to Thiruchendur. It was his place. If he is not conscious, it is neither his nor her place. May be she was exhausted in Delhi, but she could manage on her own. She would be in control of the situation. Had a regular job. Here she was a puppet. She was in danger of losing her job, the fountain of her independence, now it has become the necessity for her children. If she continues in her job, she need not depend on anyone for Ram’s treatment.
Someone called her. She woke up. It was dark. Someone was standing near her. She could figure it out. Mahesh. She tried to reach the switch.
His hands stopped her. “You are brave” he told her.
“Please leave this place” She raised her voice. She could smell alcohol.

“How long would you be like this expecting my brother to recover?. He will not recover. You would be left alone in this world. Don’t you worry. Others are planning to stop you from getting his share of the property if he dies. But I would fight for you”.
“Please go away, Please go away” she was requesting him with tears.
She put on the light. Mahesh’ wife, Ramya was standing at the door. It was twelve thirty. Her children were sleeping in the same room. She could not sleep. Mahesh may be a drunkard. Alcohol is not the problem. Even Ram had taken alcohol on one or two occasions. Alcohol does not change characters. But Mahesh had revealed something. Ram was a burden to them. She is vulnerable here. Danger is not in the streets. It is within the four walls of the house.
Was she a property to be divided and shared? Next morning, there was silence. Only Ramya,
Mahesh and she knew the incident. No one would reveal. She tried to speak to her mother-in-law. She wanted to take Ram to Delhi for treatment. Mother-in-law became emotional.
“How can you talk of this? He has not opened his eyes even once during these months. How can we allow you to take him to Delhi? It would be a shame on the family” She wailed and cried.
May be she is correct. Indian family cannot be seemed to abandon their son. They have to pretend that they are taking care of their son. She can be thrown away. It is the accepted thing if not the norm. She also feared that if she leaves for Delhi, he will be left to the mercy of the uncaring family who may let him die slowly.

Lakshmi could not also look after her children properly. There were problems in the school. They could not communicate properly with other children or the teachers. Something was amiss. Now children were her only support and hope. She was in a hopeless abyss.
Next day, at seven in the evening she informed her mother-in-law that she is going to the temple. After all she also needed some solace. She returned after an hour.
Three days later, she went to the temple with her children and boarded a bus to Chennai. In-laws would know only after three or four hours. By that time she had travelled far away from them.
She hoped that if he wakes up and have the patience to hear her, may be their life would be more stable. That was the only silver lining in the future.
Three months after she landed in Delhi, she had a call from Thiruchendur. She feared the worst. Her father-in-law spoke. Even before she heard anything, she started crying. In his stern voice he informed her that he woke up one or two times and told them to take him to Delhi. In the past week he had had consciousness for more than three hours at a stretch. Doctors had advised the family that it may help in his recovery if his wife and children were near him. He did not request her to come over to Thiruchendur. They would bring him once he is in a position to undertake the journey. Doctors have said that it may be within one or two weeks.
After three weeks they were in Delhi. Ram could not speak properly and was fumbling. She could understand that he is angry. For abandoning him. When they were alone, she cried uncontrollably. He did not know and could not understand what she went through. But he could not curse a woman, who is crying, head on his bosom. He needed help even to get up. She was confident that she could manage.