Death. Certain. Sudden. Cruel. The enigmatic black hole that we all know about, but can’t peek into. And yet, there’s a certain beauty to death. They say, in your last moments, your life flashes before your eyes. Your mother caressing your feverish forehead on a rough night, your father’s proud smile on your graduation day… it all comes back like a parting gift, a memento for the good person that you’ve been, so that you can drift in peace towards the light at the end of the tunnel. But what if the flashbacks make you realize that you’ve not been good enough? Is it then that the tug-off war between life and death begins?
The damp vapour lamps barely made it possible to read the bold letters of GOBARDANGA on the forlorn yellow sign-board. The train, already late by an hour, stood rooted like a stubborn kid at the station. The rain that had started an hour ago kept lashing without respite, pulling the temperature down by several degrees.
Inside the train, however, it was stifling hot. With the windows boarded up to keep rain away, and with hordes of office-goers returning from work, the train-compartment felt like furnace. Adding fire to the flame was the ongoing debate of the day. Passengers who regularly travelled by local trains were used to these pompous war of words – the only war that peace-loving middle-aged Bengalis love to undertake with strangers. And this was the Bangaon Local, the one train notorious for its overcrowding. The topic that was rife for the past one hour was ‘Life, Death and Afterlife’. All someone had done was casually remark about the futility of his mundane life.
The heat of the argument was palpable across the entire compartment. But the original commenter was nowhere to be found in all the hubbub.
“If science is the answer to everything, tell me how it explains death. What exactly happens after you die ?”
“You stop existing. Your heart stops ticking, your organs stop working. Your consciousness snuffs out with you.”
“You mean to say all these ideas of Karma and rebirth are bogus?” The old man sitting beside Amogh jumped into the fray.
“Hah! You must have had a good Karma in your previous birth then, mister, to have earned this lucrative 10-6 clerical job!” Ghosh Babu roared. A few people sniggered. Who’d say this tiger turned into a meek kitten in front of his wife?
“What say, Amogh Babu?” Ghosh looked at his new-found acquaintance Amogh for support, hoping to draw him in.
Amogh was not a daily passenger. He found this squabble unbearably suffocating. He had known Ghosh Babu for the last one and half hour only, because he sat opposite to him. An overzealous Ghosh had started blabbering to Amogh about everything he could think of, once he’d come to know they shared the same destination.
Not wanting to appear rude now, Amogh managed an uneasy smile.
His insides, however, squirmed with the urgency of a concealed pain. The agony that had been building itself up for the last five years, had climaxed to an endless abyss of loss and emptiness last night, when he’d lost his only son, Raghav, to cancer. After an early morning cremation, he had sent his wife, Madhumita, ahead of him, with most of their belongings, to their ancestral home in Bangaon. He had stayed back to submit his resignation at his workplace. Cutting the umbilical cord with the city that had given him everything, and also taken it all, he was finally returning home.
Amogh had been bracing for the grief that would come with Raghav’s imminent death, for a while. But he hadn’t counted on the burden of guilt that he would have to carry for the rest of his life. Will the remorse ever fade? He sighed.
Ghosh Babu was finishing off his argument with a relish when the train started to roll out of the station reluctantly, “…And so, live your life to the fullest. To quote the famous poet –
What if this life is full of care…”
He had probably been meaning to quote W.H. Davies, but a half-suppressed chortle stopped him midway. It came from a group of young men nearby that was busy playing cards.
“There you go. Youths these days have no respect for the elders. What’s there to laugh?” Ghosh was visibly irritated. The bright neon backpack of the addressee that jutted out like an eyesore seemed to magnify his chagrin tenfold.
“Can’t expect much from a generation that spends half of their waking hours sucked into their mobile phones, can you?” the old man ganged up with Ghosh.
And thus the discourse changed tracks. No one seemed to mind the teaming up of two people who themselves had been locked in a barney against each other not a minute ago.
Amogh turned his face way. The young men, all Raghav’s age, reminded him of his dead son. If only he could hold Raghav’s hand for one last time, and tell him he was sorry!
Half way past the last but one station, the rain stopped completely. And so did the train’s engines . The crowd had thinned considerably. It was pitch dark outside. The chill in the air wafted inside through the open windows. The train had stopped in the middle of nowhere. A few people from the neighbouring bogies had already alighted from the train and started walking.
“Let’s walk, we don’t know when the train will get moving!”
“Half an hour on foot? No way!”
People made their decisions aloud, as if seeking approval from the others. Amogh sat inside the train, waiting. He couldn’t trust his wasted feet to carry him to the station. Ghosh kept up with his banter with whoever that would listen.
By half past 11, most of the passengers had left. The young men who had finally ‘succumbed’ to the elders had long gone. So had most of Ghosh’s listeners.
“My friend phoned me to say there’s a tree on the tracks, the train’s not going anywhere anytime soon,” announced a man as he got down.
Ghosh smiled at Amogh, “Let’s go then, comrade!”
They started soon after, trudging in the dark under the moonlight. Amogh tried to keep pace, bogged down by his rucksack. A few people followed them a little way back. The sounds of their feet crunching the graveled tracks echoed through the fields.
“The rain sure has turned the air cold. I’m shivering,” Ghosh remarked, hoping Amogh would speak.
Amogh merely grunted to show he agreed.
“My missus was furious when I said I’d be late. Hehehe… What did yours say?” Ghosh continued, obstinate.
Amogh sighed. Madhumita hadn’t called him after he’d told her over phone hours ago that he had boarded the train. She was used to Amogh working till the wee hours of the morning. But of course, their son had died last night. And she knew he had resigned today. Was the indifference deliberate?
“You seem to be struggling with your bags. Need some help with the rucksack?” a familiar voice jolted him out of his reverie. A young man had caught up with the two of them.
“Hey, didn’t you get down ages ago with your friends?” Ghosh interjected before Amogh could respond. Though the darkness made it impossible to see faces, this young man seemed to be from the card-playing group indeed, the one Ghosh had been arguing with, an hour ago. His neon backpack was unmistakable in the dark.
“They were in a hurry, and I wanted to savour the night walk for a while,” the young man replied with an air of mystery. “I don’t have anyone to answer to at home, unlike them,” he added, sweetly.
As he clutched a strap of Amogh’s rucksack to ease his load, Amogh felt the nip in the air and shivered a little.
“Well, good for us. Amogh Babu here doesn’t speak much. I thought I’d have to carry on with my monologue all the way,” Ghosh laughed out loud. The young man joined him.
Amogh smiled in spite of himself.
“I’m sorry. I’m going through a lot,” Amogh sighed, but the other two kept looking at him expectantly, and he blurted out, “I-I lost my son…to cancer…last night.”
There was an awkward silence after this revelation. Even the ever-verbose Ghosh Babu got tongue-tied, it seemed.
“May God give you the strength to bear this pain, Amogh Babu,” he mumbled.
The pain, I’ll bear. But what about the guilt? Amogh pondered.
Neon-backpack was quiet. Perhaps, he was not good at voicing his thoughts, like Amogh himself. After a while, he spoke.
“No amount of words I say can salve your bereaved heart. But I can share my cancer-story, talk about my tryst with death…”
“A cancer survivor, are you now, eh? You seem quite fit to me!” Ghosh seemed to have regained his tattling tongue.
If the man smiled in the dark, they couldn’t see. But they could feel the amusement in his voice when he spoke next.
“I’m sorry I don’t carry a sign board.”
“Ah! You young people take offence so easily… Now do regale us with your story, brave young man,” Ghosh was prompt. The sarcasm in his voice wasn’t hard to miss.
Neon-backpack cleared his throat.
“Cancer, a disease for the rich… It will drive kings to beg on the streets and still be hungry for more. Phone calls full of sympathy start pouring in once the news spreads, and stop just as fast. Can’t blame the people though, keeping in touch somehow binds you with an obligation to help.”
“Wise words indeed, young man,” Ghosh was one of those people who had trouble keeping mum.
“I had Lymphoma, already in stage-4 when I was diagnosed. It had sneaked in without notice, and had been feeding off me silently for years. Ulcers, lumps, weight loss… I’ll skip the gory details. The survival rate was 50-50. But I was a staunch believer of YOLO, I took life as it came my way, and made fun of death!”
“Yellow? The colour? Or is it one of those rock-bands ?” Ghosh wondered aloud.
“It’s an acronym for You Live Only Once – an ideology that calls for living life to the fullest…”
“But that’s what I’d been saying back on the train!”
“What’s this life if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare…”
Neon-backpack’s recital was flawless. He continued as if in a soliloquy, “Yes, but the thing is, sometimes you get so busy seizing the day, living your life to the fullest, that you forget to stop and peer around for the little things that matter.”
He resumed after a pause, “The chemo therapies were a nightmare. I remember pleading with my mother for pulling the plugs on me after one particular session. It was insane. But every time I fell, I always managed to resurface with a bang.
For a year or two, I was good. But then, around my 27th birthday, the disease relapsed, hungry for my blood. The relapse shattered me completely. Doctors advised bone-marrow transplant, the last resort – complicated, risky, not to mention, extremely expensive. My father pooled all his resources to get the operation done.”
The melancholy that hung in the air around them was almost tangible.
“One month into the transfusion, my body began to revolt. The doctors gave up. I gave up. I’d mellowed down. I’d grown four years wiser, ticked most of the things off my bucket-list, seen a lot in my life that I hadn’t even dreamed about… I just wanted this vicious cycle of suffering to end.
They said I’d survive a week or two. There were times when I thought this was it…death, the end. But miraculously, I survived. A month passed, and then two, then three. I was frail, but I lived. It was agony, however, to see my father a broken man, a shadow of his former self. I urged him to resume his work at full force. Talking to people, tending to the sick ones… that’s what always made him happy. He was a doctor, you see…”
Beads of perspiration appeared on Amogh’s forehead even with the cool breeze occasionally hitting his face. Was it the exertion of walking?
“One such night, I felt I was slipping away. My father was at work, he had been very busy with a big surgery since a week. My mother sat by my head, holding my hand, trying to ease my pain. And then, I saw death, cloaked in black, come to fetch me. Amidst my delirium, I heard my mother call dad on his phone, but he was two hours away, and I wasn’t sure if I’d survive the next few minutes. I could feel my being ebbing out of me. And then, my life flashed before my eyes…”
He paused for an effect that was not lost on the other two. Death, indeed, was intriguing : dreadful, cold, but it’s mysterious allure was hard to evade.
“They say, when you face death, you remember your special moments. I thought I’d be seeing a beautiful kaleidoscope of medals and trophies and all my achievements. I saw my mother. Only her. Her beaming face when I got my karate black belt, her serene smile on our last family vacation at the sea, her putting up a brave face in front of my father, and then breaking down in secret when the biopsy-report spelled ‘cancer’ – It was all very quick. But it was enough… enough to make me realize what a fool I had been. I had this sudden overwhelming urge to live. I struggled to stay afloat. I had one life and I had lived it all wrong! I needed to set things right.”
The lights at the station twinkled like pin-points at a distance, as if winking in a mischievous conspiracy.
“Then, I did something I should have done years ago. I clasped my mother’s hand and begged her, ‘Mother, forgive me!’ She started crying inconsolably, perhaps more for the words that I’d just uttered than for the fact that I was dying. I figured I had opened the floodgates she’d carefully guarded for years.”
“A mother’s heart always forgives,” Ghosh commented, curious to know what offence neon-backpack had committed.
“You see, she was my step-mother. I had never addressed her as ‘mother’ before. My father… well, he couldn’t care less about these petty things. He married her when I was eleven, an year after my biological mother died. They said it was because he wanted someone to help him raise me. And I despised her. Why shouldn’t I? I was eleven, and I had grown up hearing about evil step-moms torturing their step-children for selfish reasons. But she was very kind to me… so kind, that it seemed almost sinister to my unaccustomed brain. There was no way I was letting this strange woman usurp my mother’s position! I fought with her, ignored her, disrespected her all through my school-life…”
“And your father kept mum?” Ghosh cut in.
“Well, his world revolved around his work, and me. He hardly saw anything beyond these two. He spoilt me too much with indulgence. Which man marries a woman just so she can raise his child when he could simply hire a nanny?” The man gave a wry laugh.
“Many of us,” Ghosh quipped, solemnly.
“With age, I toned down. For one, she was an amicable woman. And since I remained the only child to my parents, I couldn’t accuse her of step-motherly partiality. But an invisible barrier stayed put between us. She lived her life by herself in our family. Father had married her, but he had never been able to make her feel a part of our house. And who am I to judge him? I did little to help.”
Remorse made his voice thick.
“She was always humming songs. I remember once she’d asked father to let her learn piano. He’d dismissed it outright, ‘How will you look after this naughty kid if you become busy with your piano?’ That was the last time she’d asked for anything from father.
I’d never seen him asking her if she’d eaten, when he returned home late. I’d never seen him offer her a glass of water. She was there like an automaton, fulfilling our whims and wishes.”
“Di-did your mother tell you all of these?” Amogh broke his silence, finally. Did his voice shake?
“She didn’t have to. I was there, silent, because it never affected me. I never stood up for my own mother, when father tried to clip her wings. And with my silence, I simply followed his footsteps in choking her slowly…”
“At least you realized your mistake, son. Redeem yourself now. Better late than never!” Ghosh sounded sympathetic.
They had almost reached the station.
“Sometimes, it’s just too late to make amends. My father was a good dad, but a terrible husband. I loved a quote of Rowling’s that father would often remind me, ‘Don’t pity the dead, Raghav. Pity those who live without love.’ But he doesn’t practise what he preaches. He feels guilty about not being present by my deathbed, when he should be guilty about not being there for my mother…”
“Deathbed? Whaa…” Ghosh wheeled around. Where was neon-backpack? It was only him and Amogh, there was no one else with them. As his rucksack fell with a thud, Amogh dropped to his knees, sobbing.
“I had little time on my hands to set things right, I hope I did. I don’t want my father to die with the same regrets. We have this one life to live, and this one life to atone for our sins. I couldn’t, but maybe he can?….” The voice echoed and faded to nothingness, as the chill in the air dissipated.
Amogh covered his face with his hands, and wailed, “I’m sorry, Raghav. Forgive me, Madhumita.”
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