‘ Clunk, clunk, clunk’, came the sound from the back part of the house. Gayathri was perplexed. What could it be? She was terrified of venturing out of her safe place, her bedroom; but her brother looked up at her and asked,” Akka, can you hear that weird noise? Shall we go and see?”
Gayathri noted the ‘we’, and felt her heart being torn from the sadness that threatened to engulf her. At an age where he should be running around amok with mischief on his mind, drinking juice by the gallon and eating as if born hungry, he was mature beyond his years and spoke deliberately so as not to hurt the person opposite him. But this incident had shaken him and his equanimity disturbed and hence the use of the pronoun. But it also gave her a semblance of courage that she didn’t have to face whatever it was , alone.
Measuring their steps carefully, stealthily so as not to disturb anyone or anything, sister and brother held hands and went towards the source of the noise. The scene there took away Gayathri’s breath and she didn’t even dare look at Manoj’s face for fear that he would cry.
Her mother sat on the ground, a steel tumbler, the one from which she drank milk twice a day, being pounded into a steel, massy pulp. Her eyes glassy, fixed in a death stare, no tears falling from them for a change, were mindlessly fixed on the mess in front of her.
“Amma, what are you doing? Why are you doing this? Please, Amma, talk to me, say something. Look at us, we can’t see you like this”, pleaded Gayathri. For probably the first time in her life , she felt scared of her gentle mother who was incapable of hurting anyone. A guttural sound came from her mother’s lips. “Get out of my sight. I don’t want or need anyone. You all are a burden on me. I can’t even go and die somewhere. Just go and leave me alone”.
And she raised the pounding stone in her hand as if to throw it at them and Gayathri took to her heels, Manoj close behind her. They ran to find their father, who had rushed out of their house after their latest argument. To their relief, he was found sitting under a tree nearby. “Appa, please come fast. Something has happened to Amma. She has never been like this.’’ Sobbed Gayathri, her brother crying noiselessly because their father hated ruckus of any kind from his wife and kids.
Her father immediately sprang up and rushed towards the house. Went towards the kitchen and saw the horrific scene. He felt rage building up inside him once again and felt like belting his wife but the thought of the neighbours and the ensuing noise held him back. Without another word, he led his wife, who was almost catatonic from the emotional meltdown, towards their bedroom. He tucked her into bed and sat down himself. His anger had somewhat dissipated and he felt ashamed of his actions earlier which had led his wife to this situation. Holding his head, he contemplated his next course of actions and decided on something.
The havan kund emitted smoke and fire in equal measure and made the eyes of the people sitting around it, water endlessly. It made it possible for Gayathri to hide her tears as she thought of her life ahead. She had agreed for the marriage because of the potential escape it provided from the abusive environment she had grown up in. But she felt saddest on leaving her brother behind. Her mother was incapable of protecting him from their father’s anger and he was growing up to be a complete introvert. She vowed to herself to get him out from there as soon as she was able to. She had to win her soon-to-be husband over to her way of thinking and then decide on how best to go about the next steps.
That night, Gayathri waited demurely, in equal parts scared and excited about the happenings that were about to unfold. Shashank came inside, his hands still clutching the Mogras that his over-enthusiastic cousins and friends had thrust in them. His sherwani felt suffocating and the perfume that had been sprayed, overwhelming. He was ,to tell the truth, a bit intimidated by Gayathri. She was a complete opposite of what he wanted in a life partner, but his mother had convinced him otherwise and now he was supposed to build a life with her. Dare he take her into his confidence? He didn’t know.
The California sun beat down relentlessly as Gayathri went about her shopping. Having bought the necessary groceries, she sat and calculated whether there was some money left over from last month’s budget that could be adjusted towards buying some shoes and a couple of new dresses for herself. To her great relief, there was enough and then some more which she could afford to spend. “ At least, this month I won’t have to compromise on the quality of vegetables and milk”, she thought. About to put the car in gear and drive off, she suddenly remembered the most important item on her list. Feeling suddenly deflated, she killed the engine and slumped down dejected. She would have to forgo her dresses this month too. The medicines and the treatment were too costly for money to be splurged elsewhere. Her mind flew back to that day when she had discovered Shashank’s secret.
“ Gayathri”, he had roared. “How dare you arrange the clothes in my cupboard? Who gave you permission to even touch it?”
“ I’m s..s..sorry, Shashank. I thought it looked in total disarray and messy , and I had some free time. So I rearranged it. If you don’t like it, I won’t do it another time” Gayathri stammered in confusion and fear.
“What had happened so earth shattering that Shashank was shouting like this?” wondered Gayathri.
“Shashank, why have you become so forgetful nowadays? I had told you just today morning that today we have to go to my Boss’s wedding anniversary party and now here you are, slumped in front of the TV. Can you please hurry up and get ready?”
“I am not in the mood to go and meet anyone, Gayathri. Please leave me alone”, replied a sullen Shashank.
Fuming, Gayathri had left for the party, wondering how many more times she would have to make excuses for Shashank.
That day it had been later than usual when Gayathri returned from work and she was surprised to see the house in darkness. Usually Shashank, who used to return before her, used to get the dinner started and Gayathri used to make any additional dishes if needed. Later, they had this habit of retiring to the den with dessert, sometimes ice-cream sometimes plain chocolate, and watch television for an hour or two, maybe read the day’s papers long overdue. But today it seemed as if Shashank hadn’t returned yet. It was unlike him to be off schedule but sometimes unexpected delays do happen at work, so thinking Gayathri parked the car and opened the garage. And did a double-take. Because Shashank’s car was right there. That meant he was at home. Then why was the house like this?
A little apprehensive now, Gayathri opened the front door with her set of keys and stepped inside. Switched on the foyer light and saw nothing amiss. Hanging her coat on the stand, she went past it and had just entered the sitting room when she felt the presence. Hair standing on end, she whispered,”Shashank? What are you doing there behind the door? Didn’t you go the office today?”
A deep growl emitting from his throat, Shashank rushed at Gayathri and clutched her throat, squeezing it. “You are trying to kill me by slow-poisoning me, aren’t you? I knew that you are an emissary of the devil, disguised as a pretty girl. I will not spare you, I will not spare you”, saying Shashank squeezed harder. Gayathri thrashed about, trying with all her might to free herself.
Finally an accidental kick to his groin made him loosen his grip and Gayathri freed herself. Running to the bedroom, she locked herself. Shocked, she sat in the darkness, trying to process what had just happened. Gayathri just couldn’t fathom why Shashank had behaved like this. Calling 911 was not an option because she had no one else in the States. Not knowing what else to do, she took out her mobile and dialled her Mother-In-law.
“Hello Ma, how are you?” And Gayathri couldn’t control herself any longer and burst out crying.
“Gayathri…Gayathri…what’s wrong, child? Did you and Shashank have an argument? Give him the phone. Its been some time now since I scolded him,” said her Mother-In-law.
“ Ma, he tried to kill me today.” Gayathri whispered.
There was complete silence from the other end for a whole minute Just when she thought that the connection was lost, her Mother-In-Law’s strangled whisper came.
“Hasn’t he been taking the medicines?”
“What medicines, Ma? Is there something I should know and you haven’t told me? Tell me, Ma, please tell me. I am sitting in the bedroom, having locked it from the inside, fearing for my life and I get to know that there’s some secret about which I have been kept in the dark. At least tell me now before something grave happens.” Gayathri pleaded.
And then out tumbled the skeleton in the closet. Shashank was a schizophrenic. A brilliant student all through his educational life, he had managed to secure a seat in Harvard on pure merit. Even there, he had proven himself worthy of the scholarship and excelled beyond expectations. With a bright future ahead of him, he had landed a plum post with one of the top companies.
But just a couple of years into the job, he had started displaying anti-social behaviour and picking fights with all and sundry, claiming that his inner voice was showing him the way. A concerned friend had taken him, first to a local doctor who then referred him to a renowned psychiatrist. Dr.Stone had conducted some tests, evaluated his behaviour for some days and finally given the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Shashank’s parents had arrived by then and this sounded like a death knell. And it wasn’t as if they were not aware of what it meant, the costs the treatment entailed but their more pressing concern was, if Shashank was not cured, then who will send them the monthly money, who will fund their tours and extravaganza.
They had taken him back to India and gotten him admitted to a well known hospital there. With complete rest and proper medications, slowly his condition improved but the Doctor cautioned that stress can roll back every step taken forward.
And then they messed up his life even further. They got him married but not before advising him with the strictest possible warning that if he wanted to lead as normal a life as possible, he better not disclose about his condition to his wife. In an effort to please his parents, he hid everything from Gayathri and even made a schedule to take his medicines so as not to arouse her suspicions. Everything was working out fine but the secrecy started taking its toll on Shashank’s mind. He started regressing and all the improvements made slowly started sliding. His medicines depleted and he couldn’t work up the nerve to confess everything to Gayathri and pull his health together.
Now Gayathri started connecting the dots and could identify when his behaviour had taken turn for the worse. His sullen silences, disinclination to socialise, his forgetfulness, anger, and finally his hallucinations all made sense to her. She disconnected the call after assuring her Mother-In-Law that she would take care of everything. Gayathri called up the district hospital and got the necessary aid and resumed Shashank’s treatment. It of course meant that Shashank would no longer be working and everything depended on the earnings of Gayathri but that was just one of the many problems that had wormed their way into Gayathri’s life.
She had to forgo many luxuries, change their house to someplace less expensive, cut corners but she bore it all with a smile on her face, her tears soaking her pillow at night.
Today, she just felt defeated. It had been more than a year since Shashank’s treatments and she was losing hope of a normal life anymore. Just then her damp eyes fell on a flyer stuck to her car’s windshield, which she hadn’t noticed earlier.
A flyer for Parachute Tandem Jumping, Bungee Jumping and Rappelling, the catchline caught her eye. It read, “You have one life to live, live it fearlessly, live it freely”.
And all of a sudden, Gayathri felt free as a bird. She knew what she had to do. She could take care of Shashank, and take care of her happiness too. It was all in her hands. Shoving the idea of shopping for dresses, she immediately called up the number given in the flyer and asked for an appointment to take some beginner classes.
After all, it was true. She had only one life to live.
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