It was dark when we reached the river bank, darker than any dark night. Muddy shallow waters not wanting to wait for anyone, and I mean no one—neither you nor your loved ones—south-bound, carrying heavy brown ashes, striding indifferent to my family—was drifting under the Sunsari bridge. I could see people crossing desperately into their cosy homes into slow resignation, where I sat on its bank with feet sunk in sand shedding endless tears that lensed vision, yet completely riveted by burning fire affront, gradually dying at its top and bidding earth goodbye towards the sky, making it difficult for me to fathom where it died. People surrounded me from all around—people who would tap on my back, try to soothe me and tell me all the good things in the world they could to make me stop crying. I don’t remember anything they said. And it was not helping. But I do remember one thing. That my father was in flames and I was the one to put him in it.
I stayed afar, away from his body heat which had stopped me from reaching him one last time. Racing thoughts quickening in empty mind—uncountable uncontrollable tears and repeated urge to jump in it: I’d have to think nothing then—it would all be quiet, but then occasional remainder of two more people, no three—whom I could die for later: the whole scene was looping in my eyes as if they were the last frames of my life. I cremated two people that day, my father and his child in me.
Least did I realise was time flying by me so close. Just three weeks into bed, I remember offering him soup, catering beside. Not knowing what to do, he’d look at the spoon as a cat at the cucumber with those loveless eyes. I hadn’t slept that night; I could cry no more. I didn’t want visitors doubt my regular visits to the bathroom. The moment I advanced the spoon and let it softly touch his lips, they fumbled and let it in through its crevice. He tirelessly kept pushing the soup from the right to the left and back not knowing what to do. Without a blink, my eyes were fixated at his neck to see any signs of the shallowing. The lip leaked the liquid from its loose ends. My mother wiped it off his clothes and tears off her eyes—before they dropped in the soup and before she dripped in them. My wife would remember a thing or two suddenly—as things would escalate this or that way and shoot herself towards a dark room, a room I promised would never let her in. Comfortable lies, we told each other.
A week into diagnosis, his brain cells were already giving up. The disease was taking everything away from us: memories, happiness and hope. He was slowly disappearing by emaciation. We were losing him from the sides and within us. Bedridden since few days, wetting since few months and dying since few years; he kept on succumbing to his illness day by day, cell by cell. The bed saw new sheets too sooner, white streaky sheets with cloud linings for every leak. Oxygen cylinders emptied, one after the other, replaced in haste, with agony; it seemed the air around him did not satisfy him anymore, it was weak.
A matter of past, he would keep mum for all day, no longer irritate us with his babbles. Our ears would ask our brains to play the old tunes because they hear the brain hum the words but without music. We had become experts in speaking pantomimes. I sat there beside him and observed his chest ascent and descend slowly. It was so regular, so life affirming, for days I kept time by those ups and downs, which were in complete synchrony with the clock. We could do nothing than wait for his chest to rest and hands to halt, stop pumping blood to my fingers that struggled each time to feel the life in it as they remained fixated on his wrist since long—so long that I didn’t realize they were mine.
The more I saw into his chest, the more time would slow, the more seconds would linger and the slackening chest clock would gradually wither in energy and will. I felt for the first time, time slows for people in pain.
My father’s hands were tough. He was fit as a fiddle, firm. Almost ten kilometres walk every day to his office had stiffened his legs and hands. His legs—I still feel hitting my back. It’s strange that past days, no matter how grave, were good days. Gone wind gives pleasant aroma.
I have been afraid of my father my whole life. His first shout would summon me from hell. At times, it would be so overpowering that I would stop talking to him for days. I would normally shout, “Oh, Please. Enough!” He was a perfect imperfect father anyone could have. But as I realize now his only mistake was he loved me so much he didn’t know it was hurting me. It would be so profuse, it would flow off my heart, brain and liver and pass into my gut.
The day he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we were still yet to be strangers. With flashy images, he’d say a word or two. The plaques and tangles were still working through their dread. He’d been waiting to hear of his to-be grandson in my wife but we were not ready with the news then. I wanted a baby girl. But whatever, we’d tell him first, we thought. It had nearly been two years since we’d been married. He would always tell me—“It’ll be a boy, you see.” And, I’d nod.
One fine morning, as he laid in his bed surrounded by our neighbours, my wife came to me with two black parallel lines in a strip. I knew what those were. I waited for everyone to leave and him to see. I broke him the news—thrice. My wife, my mother looked at him eagerly, not knowing what to expect. He looked at my face and looked away. He had forgotten everything, even me. How could he?
I saw dread not just awoke, but asleep too. The following night, came an awful nightmare. A god stood before me and asked me to choose between the two: my unborn child and my father—that who I don’t want living? I still remember the dream and the question, but not the God. That was the most perplexing and horrifying question posed to me by anyone, by every standard. I didn’t remember choosing anything. And, thank god, I didn’t have to. But, if I had to, it’d be me.
Back in those days, since I was born the only thing I ever thought about was “What if…” and that is how my journey of angst began. Ever since I was a child, I have constantly played this what-if game and won every time—by losing. It might seem an oxymoron to you but for me it’s clear as glass. I never liked study; I did not want to—for one reason that I could not because I had something else more important to do than studies. People succeed by doing things that are important and interesting and in their bucket list, that they love doing these things and nothing else other than these things. I couldn’t do this because I had people to feed, a home to run and an old force-retired weak fragile ill father to look after. After he was hit by a bicycle—that was when I was a sophomore—he cracked his femur and that’s where my journey of teaching began. The following year, he was bitten by a cat, got five rabies shots at home at a time when a 3 kg traction stretched his legs straight for almost 6 months and then got hospitalized with repeated surgeries for three second degree spontaneous pneumothorax followed by COPD, hypertension and finally Alzheimer’s—this was my father’s journey.
During my teaching years, I was always fascinated with engineering. But, it was simple. My father couldn’t afford and I didn’t have a magical wand to weave. I couldn’t work out engineering. I didn’t like doing things except engineering. I could be a computer engineer though: I had everything: hope, perseverance, talent, everything, except a computer, and apart from some countable pennies that I’d get from my father.
My father built the home I grew up in. It was a very strange home. It had doors but no curtains, windows but no panes. It was a wooden villa, 2-storeyed living garden which could be assessed through a wooden ramp decomposed partially. One had to walk with legs and often fumble with hands to not fall into the ditch. The staircase had wooden planks placed unevenly at unequal distances. More often than not, one or two planks of woods would break loose and one had to jump from a lower stair to the top in order to climb. It was rather a steer. While inside home, I could see everything outside and everyone could see everything inside. We used to dine at 8 in the morning and 5 in the evening. People could actually see us dining inside. My home had a special preference for our mammalian friends. We three, I, my father and my mother including a cow and a calf and few cats used to feed at the same time at the same place. The cow shed was intimately placed alongside the kitchen room without a partition wall in between. It would at times be fun to have seen our company feeding with us and often disgusting because when Kali used to pour gaunt and gobar, a speck would sprinkle towards our kitchen. Kali was good company, actually she was the company to bear a major portion of my school fees. I used to wonder why my father would not allow a partition wall. But, I realized later he was way too possessed with her.
He used to bring home his salary in the flaps of hundreds and hand me few to have a look at. We used to sit around a bonfire, our friends; and I would display lavishly those hundreds—which I remind of doing once, to the surprise of my friends who, I bet must have thought my father had had a big hand on something or he was working big in the office. I bet they must have asked their mother at least once about what exactly he used to do to get such a large number in his son’s hand. And, that was pleasure for me. I wonder how I had realized so young—money which I had on my hand would partially pay my school fees, get our groceries and if it is festive, buy us some candles for Tihar. I had that packet of money clenched in my fist for good. That would be everything my father would get in a month.
Back then in school, when I used to have nothing to do during my holidays, I would go with my father to his office. He normally would walk but with me, we’d take a rickshaw and take this opportunity to eat rasbari in Panditji hotel. At office, I’d normally stroll around while he’d do the sweeping and stuff. He never allowed me to fetch even a jug of water there. But, I liked to do it because my mother won’t let me do it at home.
“Don’t see how hard I work. See how hard it is,” my father would say.
I’d smile and reply back, “Well, maybe I’d make someone do this in future then”
“Dhat, everyone should work”
And after a pause, I’d again ask him, “Why do you do this, father?”
“To make sure you don’t have to do it”
At home, he was an arcane man. Often a times, he’d come furious and my mother and occasionally I had to bear his wrath by all means, for things that most of the times we’d never remember doing. I recall when I nearly had to go naked in front of my neighbors because I had gone for a movie—which I could not in those days. I was nearly 13 then and I was ashamed. But, despite everything—the movie was interesting. The heroine would die at last leaving the two boys shocked. I was shocked too. That was enough adventure for me that day.
What seemed to reign faint into my memories is the day, maybe I was 3 or 4, when I loved looking after neighbors’ buffaloes with the herder I don’t remember now, washing them into joy and enjoying the amusement when their tail would splash water over me. I don’t know how I remember this and why I don’t remember what I wrote minutes back, but it’s the way it is. One day, when my father was off to his office and I was happy to have those buffaloes back with me, I saw my elder brothers and sisters with long alternately coloured strips on their chest wearing bright clothes and black shoes and with bags on their backs, ready to go somewhere. I wanted to go too. Where I don’t know, but I wanted to. I too wanted that bag, that dress, and that smile. And I did. My neighbor didi asked my parents to let me go. My parents felt proud to send me to school. And the wonderful part was I could be that every day.
At school, I got to play metal swings for the first time, made friends, ate chocolates that the head teacher would offer and play in the ground with people like me. I enjoyed school more than home. But, they soon stopped me swinging in the chains because my teacher said I was not “admitted”. And now I wanted to, whatever that was. I asked my parents and my father willingly did. He always did, till he could. I was swinging again, leaving the ground. Those swings made me forget my buffaloes and the water and the splash and the canal and everything. Soon I missed those buddies, especially when the teachers twisted my ears and make me rote learn things I had yet to understand.
My mother does not fit in the story of my father. Because her story is way longer and way truer than my memories combined. I have discovered writing lately and I would only want them written once I start writing well. And, I will. She’s a living goddess, a library next to this chapter of my book. I fear libraries. They have dark dreary untold stories that make a decent gothic novel except that that wouldn’t be fiction but truth truer than you, me and everyone else.
When my father breathed his last that 7th Baishakh afternoon, someone told me to go out. They brought him outside and there he laid with the earth, near the Tulsi. His thirst for oxygen had finally quenched. The double parallel lines in the strip had no meaning for him. And, finally the torture was gone. The bed was stripped. It no longer needed those white streaky sheets. But, my father—he now did.