(The narrative includes verses from the poem The Road Not Taken written by Robert Frost.)
‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry, I could not travel both and be one traveler,
long I stood and looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…’
My phone rings and breaks the silence in the waiting hall of the hospital. I hastily attend the call.
“Hello Doctor Madam!” The familiar and endearing voice of my childhood bestie Varun makes me smile.
“Vroom! How are you?” In my childhood, apparently I found it easier to call him Vroom and the nickname got stuck. He on the other hand still addresses me as Molu, an endearing term used for a girl-child in Malayalam, although we both are in our late twenties now.
“I am fine, Molu. But why are you speaking in such low tones?” He asks in concern.
“I am in a hospital right now.”
“As a patient or as a doctor?” He asks after a beat.
I laugh. “As a prospective doctor. This is a corporate hospital and I want to set up my practice here. I came to meet the concerned authorities and to check the facilities. If all goes well, I would hopefully be a part of this hospital’s panel.”
He breathes out in evident relief. “Whew! For a while you had me worried. So things are going good in the city?”
“So far, so good. And what about you? How come you are calling on a week day? You are usually busy rushing through your office chores.” I tease him.
“I am at home. Ammamma is not feeling well. I had to take her to Palakkad to get her checked. She was complaining of body pain and weakness. Doctor said it is nothing to worry about and gave her some vitamin tablets. She is resting right now. I had thought of attending office for the second half of the day but more than half of the day went by in going all the way to Palakkad, then waiting for the doctor and the return journey.”
Ammamma, his maternal grandmother, has been like a grandmother to me too. Our families lived in the same lane. Our village is called Peruvembu. It is a picturesque and quaint village in Kerala with ample of paddy fields, temples, lakes and mountains bordering yonder. Add to it, the trademark coconut-trees of Kerala and what you get is a postcard-worthy slice of God’s own country. I and Vroom grew up together, along with a bunch of other kids. While some like me left the village to pursue higher education in other cities, Vroom and some other friends stayed back. Vroom works in the IT department in a MNC in Palakkad, a busy town in Kerala. One-way journey to the town from his village on his bike takes him about an hour.
“I hope Ammamma recovers soon. So there is still no doctor in the village!?” I ask, feeling disturbed. While the people in my village would always proclaim proudly that the very air of the village is healthy and that they never worried about falling sick, nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that the nearest doctor was in Palakkad town, almost an hour away. What would happen in case of an emergency!? I shudder, thinking about that.
“What to do? All doctors want to practice in the city.” He says teasingly. “The empty roads of the village are no match for the grandeur of corporate hospitals.”
His words, although said in jest, prick my conscience. Before I could reply, I hear the receptionist call out.
“Ms.Priya Nair… Please proceed to Room 103.”
“I need to go. I have to meet the authorities now. I will call you later. Give my regards to your parents and to Ammamma.”
“Bye, Molu. All the best!”
‘And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day…’
It is strange how fate takes us to unfamiliar paths.
It has been two months since my call with Vroom; two months, since I stepped inside the Corporate hospital. There was nothing lacking for me to even consider refusing the opportunity. The hospital was well-known over the entire city and catered to a large number of people for everything, right from the basic blood tests to high-end surgeries. As a general practitioner, I would have had no dearth of patients.
But something absolutely forbade me from proceeding ahead with the plan. Not something, to be precise. It was a certain someone named Vroom and his fateful call to me.
Here I am, standing outside my parents’ house in Peruvembu. I must have lost my marbles, for I have decided to open my clinic here, right at my ancestral home. I will be consulting patients in the ground floor of the home and would be living upstairs. Funny thing is, my parents live in the city now.
I turn around and see Vroom running towards me. I cannot contain my smile. I am meeting him after three long years. The lockdown during the pandemic and my practice kept me occupied in the city.
“Three years, really?” He stands before me, grinning broadly. Having lived in the village throughout his life, he is very mindful about physical contact and at the most, he gives out a hand-shake. But I the city-girl have absolutely no qualms about hugging my childhood friend whom I am meeting after a long time and I hug him tightly. He chuckles and pats me on my back awkwardly.
“I cannot believe you are here.” He says when I finally let him go.
He had tried to talk sense into me. Oh, how he tried! At first he blamed himself for making me take this decision. Then he pointed out the various difficulties I would face if I decided to work in the village. When he realized that nothing would make me waver from my decision, he accepted defeat and in a voice tinged with painful hope, he had muttered – “It would be good to have you back in the village. I have missed you.”
I look at him and shrug. “This seems like the right path. I will need your help.”
“Anything for you, Molu.” He says sincerely.
His steady presence fills me with confidence.
‘Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back…’
To say it was an overwhelming task would be an understatement. The first month went in white-washing the house and repairing it wherever it was required. Then there was the ominous task of hiring an assistant well-versed in the field of medicine. Vroom spread the word among his contacts and friends and after interviewing several candidates, I finally stumbled upon a gem – a lady in her mid-thirties who had experience in working in a hospital and who had had to take a break after maternity. She is smart, warm and compassionate and I could not have asked for a better assistant.
I cannot exactly say I am making progress. People do visit the clinic but more or less to gossip about my life and to chit-chat about olden days. Most people are reluctant to take medicines for small issues like fever or throat infection and come here to teach me home-remedies for the same.
Vroom undoubtedly is the best part of my life here. Every morning, as he passes by my house on his bike, he halts there and waits for me to wave him off. When he returns from his office in the evening, he freshens up and comes to my clinic where he regales me with everything that happened in the day. These conversations with him are priceless reminders of our childhood. It feels like nothing has changed between us.
Yet, I feel something brewing in my heart regarding him. Somewhere in the course of our daily interactions, I have started looking forward to his visits. I feel conscious about my looks all of a sudden and often rush to tidy myself before he comes to meet me in the evening. I love the way he interacts with everyone in the village. There is no pretense about him. He is his original, glorious and awesome self, and I fear that I am falling for him.
Our childhood friends who stay in the village, drop by whenever they are free. On weekends, we all go to Palakkad town and spend some time at the fort there which is a tourist attraction. Sometimes we just meet at the temple in Peruvembu and spend some time beside the lake. I never realized how much I have missed my friends until I came here.
“My father says that I should not worry about the income as he has made sufficient provisions for his entire family. Still, I can’t help feeling guilty that I am not earning enough for all the efforts and funds he invested in my medical education and training.” I confide to Vroom one evening. It has been a particularly trying day with no patients and a lot of negative thoughts to keep me company. “I am actually torn between feeling satisfied that I am doing my duty towards my village and feeling guilty that my father spent his hard-earned income on me for very less returns.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Molu. It has only been four months since you set up base here. Give yourself some time.” He tells me gently. He narrows his eyes as he stares at the empty road outside my clinic. “You know what we need? Exposure. I have an idea. Give me few days and I will come up with something.”
I lean forward over the table and pull at his cheeks playfully, feeling a sudden surge of affection for this incredible guy in front of me. “What will I do without you, my Vroom!?”
He gently wraps his pinkie finger around mine and says. “Likewise, Molu. Likewise…” I watch as he looks at our entangled fingers in silent fascination, oblivious to the world. Then as if remembering something, he clears his throat and pulls his hand from mine, looking shy all of a sudden. I cannot hide my smile. Thankfully he doesn’t look at me.
‘…That is exactly why we need more people like Priya Nair, people who put their own interests aside and strive for the development of their village. She gave up what would have been an outstanding career in a corporate hospital in the city and decided to serve her village. There is scope for so much development here.
There are roughly 300 children in the village. They attend the school in Palakkad town. While that is not the issue, there are no coaching classes in the village. Aspiring students take the trouble of attending coaching classes in the town. The others who are brilliant but are not blessed financially are not this fortunate. We need coaching classes in the village to prepare the next generation of thinkers and doers.
When it comes to coaching, there are other arenas too. Many of our talented kids play cricket in the ground beside the temple. I have personally seen them acing the game. I coach them for free during weekends. But I am not a professional cricket player or coach. Maybe some of you know someone who can provide their services as a coach to the kids and mold them for the game.
If we think about it, there are so many things we can do for the development of our village. Please drop in more ideas and suggestions and circulate this post to as many people as you can. Our village needs all the help it can get!’
“This is brilliant!” I say in awe. Vroom just smiles shyly.
In three days he came up with the brilliant plan to open a community page in FB for people hailing from our village. He has kept it an open forum so that people can freely join and circulate the updates for the group. So far, his post has garnered 5k likes.
“I will not give you any false hopes, Molu. Let us just wait and see what response we get for this, okay?” He says gently and I nod.
“Doctor?” I look at the entrance and see a lady standing there with a boy. “Are you free now? My son has been complaining of ear pain since afternoon.” She says uncertainly.
I cannot help feeling emotional. This is my first case in the four months since I came here. I usher them in. Vroom waves to me and leaves. When he catches my eye, he winks and smiles.
‘I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence…’
“Where do you want me to put this flower garland? At the top of the door, or should I just hang it by the sides?” Vroom asks me as he stands on a stool at the door of my home/clinic, holding a large flower garland in his hands.
“Hang it at the top.” I tell him. He does so and climbing down from the stool, stands beside me. “The priest will come in an hour to begin the Pooja. I think we can start expecting people to arrive any moment now.” He looks down at me and smiles. “You look pretty in saree, Molu.” I blush and smile.
Sometimes it all feels like a dream. I feel like I would wake up anytime and face the biggest disappointing news of my life. But it is happening. It is real.
I am celebrating the first-year anniversary of the opening of my clinic in my village. A senior couple in the village would be performing sathyanarayan pooja inside the clinic. The entire village has been invited and lunch has been arranged for everyone.
It still feels like a fairy-tale, the way things worked out.
Vroom’s post in facebook spread like wildfire and a large number of people joined the community group. It was amazing to see the staggering number of people who had their origins in this village. Seniors, young adults and even teens joined the community, tracing their ancestors to this village. Three of my childhood friends who were settled in different cities decided to return to the village. One of them has opened a coaching center for students in her ancestral home. With the help of the community, she could find four people who pitched in to help in teaching. These people live in Palakkad town and decided to assist her in coaching. The center is doing fine now, conducting classes for children from 5th to 10th standard.
The other two friends who returned to the village, decided to get into cricket coaching. Thanks to Vroom’s post, we could find some donations for opening a cricket-coaching center. It has been only four months since the center was opened and we are already seeing a steady influx of both boys and girls interested in cricket.
Some teens from Palakkad have pitched in to offer a mobile-library service. Every weekend they come to the village and bring books for adults and children. They also take requests for the books people wish to read. The next weekend they bring whatever books they could arrange and take back the earlier week’s book-haul. They have tied up with a library in the city for this endeavor and operate at a very nominal fee per person. My friend who runs the coaching center, arranges for book-reading events once in a month where people read stories and talk about them. For the first two events, the attendance was embarrassingly low, in that, there were four children in all. I and my friends laughed over it, bought Idli-vada for everyone from the local vendor who has his stall outside the coaching class and made a small yet enjoyable party out of it. However, word spread and gradually adults too started accompanying the children. Two days ago, it was the 6th event and we got the delight of our lives when some adults too participated in the reading.
The cricket coaching center is planning to conduct a sports-event for its 6th month anniversary which is just two months away. There is much hype around the event which has become the second-most anticipated event of the year, the first being the temple-festival that is celebrated annually in the village every November. People tracing their origins to this village attend this event without fail and make it a grand affair. This year, we are expecting some donations for the village-trust fund that we have set up.
While my personal income is still peanuts, my clinic has received remarkable donations. While I have been providing basic medicines for people all this while, I now intend to open an X-ray center in the village so that people need not travel all the way to the city for a simple X-Ray. I am already providing blood-testing facilities at my clinic. The samples are being sent to the laboratory in the city. It will take time to have our own lab in the village. That is a plan tucked away for the next year.
While my village is developing, I too am evolving as an individual. I have grown to love community life. The people in the village are nosy, sure, but they mean well. I cannot count the number of meals I get from the people living near my home. The food seems healthier and fresher, having made out of produce grown by the people in their own gardens. Almost every house in the village has a garden in the backyard where people grow raw bananas, coconuts, papayas and many more fruits and vegetables. I have come to love the cuisine of my village. I am tending to a small garden of my own. There is not much to brag about – a Tulsi plant, a neem tree, three coconut trees that will take years to provide output, a jackfruit tree and a plantain tree. Early mornings and late evenings are spent in tending to my garden. It has become a much-loved ritual of the day.
Mostly, my community has taught me to live simply and to enjoy the little pleasures of life. Spending time by the lake with my childhood friends every weekend, gathering by a food-stall and having a great time with my friends over tea and bhajjis (fried snacks) and rushing back to get to work, spending lazy and relaxed evenings at the porch of my home where someone passing by the road would always stop by and exchange news and pleasantries and finally, having a good sleep at night, a sleep that comes after a day lived well – these are priceless treasures that life in the village has brought to me.
But the greatest treasure is Vroom. What started as just a small crush, turned into an infatuation until I realized that I have fallen in love with him. I plan to tell him today after the function. The prospect makes my fingers go numb with anxiety. I rub my palms together, pushing away the thought for later.
Vroom clears his throat. “So, got any boyfriend pining for you in the city?” He asks casually, not really looking at me.
“Any boyfriend in the village?”
“Is there scope for me?” He asks this in a tone laded with anxiety and hope.
My jaw drops. He looks at me and smiles uncertainly. “I am always going to be a village-guy at heart, Molu. While I wear formals and western wear for my office, I am most comfortable in this.” He gestures to the veshti he is wearing, the traditional wear of men in Kerala. “The village is where I am my original self. Seeing you after three long years reminded me of how important you are to me and how much I have missed you. This villager would like to be your partner in life, if you too feel the same about me.”
Never has he endeared himself to me more. I give a wobbly smile, trying not to shed any tears that accumulate threateningly in my eyes. I straighten the collar of his shirt and say in a low voice. “In my opinion, city-guys are highly over-rated. I would prefer my Vroom over them any time.” I finally muster the courage to look up at him. The blatant adoration on his face overwhelms me. “Yes, I too feel the same about you.” The glorious smile on his face makes me forget everything.
I look around and see the villagers coming for the pooja. Deep gratitude dawns in my heart.
I am finally where I belong.
‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference!’
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