Entering a Labyrinth
Back in my seat, I lean forward and ask Karthik, “Tell me about my father again, Karthik. I got it in bits and pieces – what happened really…?”
“We were in Ooty…”
“The neighbour said Pondichery?” I cut in.
He shakes his head. “That was earlier…we went to Ooty because…” he gets up and looks out of the window, “Why do people go to Ooty…? It was summer. We thought of chilling.”
Instinctively, I know he is hiding something. But I wait for him to finish. “The signal was bad there.” He shrugs. “We were there for a week. As we reached Coimbatore, the neighbour called, told us to hurry back. We were going to board the train, and there were no flights at that hour.” He looks at me. “You know the rest…”
I look down, tears threatening to break out. “How was he? Had his body…” Unable to ask further, I cover my face.
Karthik comes closer and asks gently, “How do you remember him, Kalpa?”
My father, smiling his naughty smile and teasing me…that is the image I have of him. And his photo, looking solemnly at the camera, and chuckling the moment the photo was clicked…
Karthik touches my head. “Keep that image with you, Kalpa. The details are irrelevant.”
I nod, the image of a decaying face still forcing itself on my consciousness, and I almost gag. He forces my hands off my face and pulls me to him, soothing me. We have been through this, I tell myself. Stop it… But the pain is fresh. Maybe even with time, the frustration of having been away when he needed me will never die. I wonder only what he felt, what his last thought had been. I feel so inadequate that the pain keeps coming in fresh waves, till finally Karthik tells me harshly, “Your crying is no good for him or for you! It is done with…you had better control then than now. I think we will stop this nonsense now.”
He moves back but I hold him tightly. “No! I promise. Please don’t stop now. Tell me again about your father…? Please help me relive those days, Karthik. I don’t want news. I want to know our actions, our reactions.”
We both sit on the two-seater, his arm around me. A distant look comes in his eyes. I pray, God, forgive me, for I have asked for pain and given Karthik pain too… But I know of no other way.
“Do you remember our moving to our own house?” he asks. I nod. “You know they were upset with you, me also, but you more.” I look down and nod again. It had been a sore point with them, the daughter-in-law who had caused the separation between parents and son. Karthik had stood by me, and that caused more anguish. I tried to tell him to balance, but he had been stubborn then. Had he regretted that at his father’s death, holding me responsible for the distance between them? His father couldn’t have been older than 65 at the time…
I look at him. “And…? Karthik?”
I see the anger in his face as he averts his eyes. I know he is angry with me now. But please understand… I plead silently. “Soon after, he developed some urinary problem and seems to have gone to some doctor… After some treatment, he seems to have felt better. They didn’t tell us anything because…well, they thought I had made my choice.”
I feel pain stabbing my chest. This happened because of me, of course. But didn’t they know their son well even if they didn’t know me?
Now his face is in his hand. I should do the decent thing and back off. But selfish that I am, I want to know it all. I wait for him to calm down, then holding him by the side, ask, “And?”
His hate-filled look makes me flinch. I drop my hands away from him. He turns away and says bitterly. “And, his condition worsened. Mother got him admitted in emergency and then called us. By the time I reached, he was in coma and then he passed away in two days. What else? Let me see, it took a lot of convincing before mother consented to come and live with us. There was much bitterness then. Even then, she shuttled between our house and Usha’s.” He looks at me as if to ask if this was enough or I wanted more.
I get up, disturbed. How could he have cared for me after this? Didn’t he blame me for all that happened? His look says it all.
“Why did I stop working? When did I stop working? Why were you surprised about my riding the bike?”
Even as I ask, an answer nudges itself out. The only reason I would have stopped working was pregnancy. If I had had a child, where was he or she? And if I lost the child…what happened? If I had had a child, can’t I have had another? Why did Uma ask me about childlessness? Or, is it something else, some disease?
I don’t notice the silence; my mind is working out the possibilities. Then the silence makes me turn around. He is looking down. Still upset about his father? I am almost scared of his mood now, knowing I have pushed him beyond his limits of patience with me.