Satish sat checking the files. The paralysed eighty-year old in Room Number three had shown signs of progress. He could move his toes. Thank God! That was a big achievement! I wish I could inform his family. But, the family no longer wished to be saddled with him. What a quirk of fate!
“Sir Sir….!” The attendant running in interrupting his thoughts.
“What is it?”
“Sir, Cottage number two….” He stood panting, unable to complete.
Cottage number two! That’s Uncle’s!
Fearing the worst, Satish rushed out. The attendant followed suit. The cottage was on the other end of the long red veranda which connected his office and the residential area. Uncle was a in a coma! What if…! He had been in a coma since the last few months. They had tried their best. Silently praying, Satish ran. The octogenarian had been with them for almost a year. Losing him would be a huge loss, tough to cope with. But destiny…she had her own plans.
There was already a crowd outside the room. Why not! He was everyone’s favourite. The people made way for him. And then he stood still. The sight that greeted him was unexpected and impossible.
Uncle lay propped up against the pillows. He sat laughing and cracking jokes. Satish stood flabbergasted. That’s when the elderly man noticed him.
“Sattoooo, what are you doing standing there? Come here immediately.”
Blinking away his tears, Satish marched up to him.
“What did you think, hah? I have gone to heaven? Tchk…Tchk…I am back… to give you guys a hard time. Tell your useless staff to stop this chitchat and get me a strong cup of coffee. And if they don’t, I am going to sue your organisation. Asha-Niketan!! Where is the Asha here if I don’t get a cup of coffee on time?”
The head nurse rolled her eyes, punched him softly and left. She was crying.
Not wasting a minute, Satish enveloped Uncle in an embrace and that’s how they stayed for a while. The staff left the room giving them the much-needed privacy.
The morning bode well. Satish decided to take a brief tour of all the rooms before the new inmate arrived. Late last night the phone had rung.
“Asha-Niketan?” The caller had enquired gruffly.
Satish was cut short.
“You have a room?”
“Keep it ready by 8am. The medical history and the money are ready.”
The call was disconnected. How impolite and brusque. The caller sounded impatient and arrogant. Let them come tomorrow morning, I will give them a piece of my mind. Money! Hah! As if money can solve all problems. Satish muttered angrily. But he knew that he would never be able to reject admission to an elderly member. Everyone was welcome there whether they had money or not. How could he….
Nearly four decades ago, Satish had decided to leave India for good. A broken heart and the lure of a successful career had made him resolute. His aged parents supported each and every decision of his. Knowing very well that his departure would leave them lonely and desolate, they took it in their stride. Rather when Satish got a partial scholarship, Ma mortgaged all her jewellery to finance him. Satish promised to take them with him after the completion of his studies.
A year later, baba informed him about Ma’s prognosis. Advanced cancer, he said. Going home meant unnecessary expenses and a disruption in his studies. Instead he sent the money home. A month later another call came in informing of his mothers demise. Satish performed the last rites of his mother in an ashram on the banks of River Michigan.
Life continued. Two years later Satish was a highly specialised doctor in his desired field. He was headed home. Baba would return with him, he had decided. The guilt of not having been with his mother during her last moments gnawed at his conscience. He wanted to make it up to baba. They would set up a clinic in Michigan. Baba would be the administrator. There was enough savings and there would be more. He had also decided to sell off their ancestral house in India.
Euphoric, Satish landed in his hometown. It was almost evening. To his surprise, there were people thronging their house. Pushing them aside, he rushed in. Baba lay dead. No one knew how long he had been lying dead. The post-mortem reports showed cardiac arrest ten days ago. His last moments were in desolation and in great agony.
Guilt overcame him and with it a sharp pang of regret. He blamed himself for being selfish. If only he had been there for his parents, if only he had placed his parents well-being above his ego. But the heartbreak had been tough to endure.
A horn blared. The new inmate was here. Signalling his attendants to step out, Satish reorganised his desk and checked himself in the mirror. Almost sixty five, he had aged well. Combing the unruly grey hair, he drank a glass of water, wiped away his tears and got ready to greet last night’s discourteous caller. The gates clanged open. The car drove in. He saw from the window overlooking the driveway a frail woman getting down. Within minutes, a handsome young man dressed in formals, strode in. He looked vaguely familiar.
“My mother is here. She has Alzheimer. Hire additional help. Money is not an issue. Here are her documents and the money.”
No matter how prepared he was, the Director of Asha-Niketan was rendered speechless by the man’s boorishness. He overcame it fast and sat down to have a look at the records.
“Can you read them later and get over with the formalities? I have a flight to catch.” The man glanced at his watch.
Maintaining his composure, Satish pointed to the chair. “Sorry. This will take time. Please have a seat.” He gesticulated towards his attendants for the additional forms.
“So much paperwork!! Ask someone to fill it up. I will sign.”
The Director kept reading the records.
Reluctantly the man sat down and filled them out one by one.
“You haven’t provided an emergency contact, Sir!” The Director pointed out.
“Emergency? That’s your responsibility. You have the money and her records. What else do you need?”
“No, a number to get in touch if she falls sick or something happens.”
“If she falls sick, get her the required care. If something happens, don’t worry we won’t blame you. Handle it.”
Satish stared at them.
“Oh and don’t expect visits from us. I have made a huge deposit and I can do some more in the next month. My Secretary will arrange it. I will also make a donation to your organization. “
The formalities were over. The man rushed out as if he had just been freed from a bond.
Heaving a deep sigh, Satish checked the files once again and stepped out. It was time to check in on the new inmate.
He walked the stretch of the red veranda towards the garden. The veranda was a new addition to his old house. It was dotted with a variety of potted plants and flowers. At the corner was a cottage, a self-sufficient unit. The cottage faced the garden on one side and on the other was the pond. The ducks quacked while children from the neighbouring areas splashed in the pond. The cacophony was music to his ears. The entry to the cottage was also visible from his office. That was important. He could never take a chance with an Alzheimer’s patient.
He treaded softly and waved the attendant away. The new admission sat in the wooden armchair that belonged to his father, gently swaying. She sat with her back towards him and faced the window overlooking the pond. The view was perfect for her, he thought.
Thin and frail, the woman had a mass of white hair which fell back in soft curls creating a halo around her head. The certificate had listed her as sixty. Quite young for an Alzheimer patient!
Clearing his voice, he stepped in and faced her.
Time came to a standstill. His legs felt wobbly. He knew he would collapse any moment. Unable to take it longer, Satish fell on his knees.
The woman looked at him. There was no sign of recognition on her face. She turned her focus back on the kids.
Satish sat shocked. It was unbelievable. This was the woman he had loved for all the years. This was the woman for whom he had left everything only to lose everything. His childhood sweetheart, the love of his life. It was an irony that she was back in his life once again. She had riches but no one to care for her. She had money, but no memory. Fate had dealt her a cruel blow.
Gathering himself, he tried to converse with her. She remained mute. A blank expression on her face.
Exhausted and sad, Satish went back to his office instructing the nurses to keep a strict vigil on the new entrant. Concentration was difficult. Leela brought back memories.
Struggling to hold himself together, Satish chose to go for a drive that evening. But the memories kept haunting him. He came back deeply troubled. As he passed by the cottages, someone called out to him.
“Uncle…you are awake!”
“Yes Sattoo. It’s time for a cup of coffee. Come and have it with me. “
“It’s late. The coffee will rob you off your sleep.”
“Ahhh….who wants to sleep on this brilliantly lit night. It’s a full moon. Come let’s enjoy.”
“Ummm…No Uncle. Not tonight…”
“Hmm…what is it? Sit with this old man. You know it very well that I have no one else besides you. You never know when the next coma claims me.”
The two Selenophiles sat beside each other looking at the sky.
“Well Uncle….I don’t know where to begin. Leela was the girl next door. The yellow house that you see next to the garden? That was theirs! We knew each other from childhood. Five years younger to me, she was like my little guardian always bossing around. The girl had free entry into our house. Ma and Baba adored her. But she was my mother’s spy…always informing her Satish Bhaiya is studying or not….he is smoking… etc. She used to keep a track of all my whereabouts. It was not my mother but Leela, who kept a strict vigil on my schedule. I hated her!”
Uncle laughed. “So how did the hatred transform into love, Sattoo?”
“Now…don’t laugh. I avoided her. But she would hang around me, irritate me. Her long hair was always tied into braids. How I loved to pull them and see her wince in pain. Off she would go running to our mothers. Her mother was fond of me. So she would smile back. But mine would give me a good scolding. Leela was my mother’s pet.” Satish stopped to catch his breath. He remembered the feel of those long, tight braids. His thoughts went back to the mass of white that had replaced the braids. Time…..
“Sattoo beta! How did she look like?”
“Uncle….she was a little girl in pigtails. She graduated to braids. Not attractive at all. Rather it was her cousin who was exquisite. When that cousin visited her, there would be so many of my friends thronging their house. But that girl was arrogant.
Things changed one day. It was Durga Puja. Ma had decked up Leela with great care. She had put on Ma’s Benarasi and had kept her hair open. And she had put on a perfume… A variety of itar. You know she still uses it now. Her room smells of it.
I…I couldn’t take my eyes off her. At the Pandal outside, I saw how the young men flocked around her. She had always been my guardian. No one else had a claim on her. I realized how possessive I was. That irksome girl had come to occupy my heart. She probably understood it well for she spent that day keeping a safe distance from me and stealing a glance every now and then. Well, our relationship changed overnight.
We began to spend more time with each other. There were no restrictions. I volunteered to teach her every evening. Those classes were just a ruse. Our intimacy heightened. We knew we were meant for each other. It was time we shared it with our parents. Mine were elated. She was supposed to tell hers that night. I spent the night anticipating the events that would follow. A grand wedding….followed by a trip to our ancestral village. I had always wanted to restructure the house and build a long, red veranda where she would spend her time playing the piano. She loved gardening. The veranda would be full of potted plants…a variety of flowers.” Satish stopped again. The house got restructured. The veranda was built to connect the cottages. And the piano is a showpiece.
“What did she say next morning, Sattoo?”
“She….She never came.”
“What? Why? Did you not go to her house?”
“Yes, we did. Ma went with me. Her father stopped us. That day he made us see the reality. You see…her father was a famous barrister, affluent and highly connected. My father was just a doctor who ran a free clinic. They were a class apart. I tried my best to connect with her. But failed. She wasn’t allowed to step out. Even the windows to her room remained shut.”
“Two days later, Ma woke me up early in the morning. Leela was leaving. I rushed out. They had already boarded the car. I saw her tear-stained face. That’s all. Later we heard she had married a renowned industrialist. The yellow house was soon sold off. And that’s where the happy chapter in our life ended. I lost all interest. I was the scorned lover. Nothing interested me anymore. I wanted to flee from here. Everything here reminded me of her. I did not think about my parents. How hard it must have been for them. They gave up everything for my happiness. And look at what I did. I neglected them when they needed me the most, Uncle. How could I ever forgive myself…all..all for that woman?”
“No! No, Sattoo. By now you must have realized that she had no role in this. She had to bow down to her parents’ wishes. Don’t blame her. She is back, Sattoo. She is back in your care and she has no one. Even her memories have deserted her. Leela has paid a heavy price.”
“I… I can’t handle my emotions. I still love her. I have always loved her. If I see her every day I will weaken.”
“Ahh so that is what is bothering you. Isn’t that natural? Tell me how many get their lost love back? How many? You have been given another chance, Sattoo. Grab it. Make the most of it. She has no memories. Rebuild them. Love her. Show her what true love is. Sattoo…..Beta…I never got that chance!”
“Uncle! You never told me.”
“Hmm…The pain refuses to go! I loved her but from a distance. The day I mustered the courage to tell her, she died in a freak accident.”
“Yes Beta. Not everyone gets this opportunity. “
“Now go Sattoo. Sleep well tonight…in peace. She is back and she is with you. That’s very comforting. Start it all over…..Put that piano and the red veranda to good use.”
Wiping away his tears, a determined Satish stood up.
As he saw Satish walking away, Uncle drew a deep breath. He took out a photograph from his wallet. Frayed at the edges, it was of a young woman. She reminded him of the moon. He kissed it and then blew a kiss to the moon. “My love….my wait for you is endless….but soon…very soon.”
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