The water level appeared to brim, roll and swirl with a deep bass gurgle and slowly coiled around the jugular. It was a dark mass and the only revelatory sign of its identity was its slow gurgle. It was as if nothing would or could stop its lazy, unwinding flow. Also it was beset with a killer edge and he thought a boa constrictor was tightening around his neck. Its muddy taste was choking his nostrils and flowing around the veins of his throat. “Oh No….God! what’s this?” he shouted nearly in panic and got up with a start.
Anantharaman, now in the threshold of sixties and salubrious retirement, had this recurring dream for many years and learnt to live with it as if it was a mole on his elbow. He knew what led to it and for many years refused to share it even with his close loop of friends. He had gone on deputations as part of official routine to different parts of Kerala where inexplicably the dream never haunted him and he had undisturbed sleep. Only when on a rare occasion his friends drifted into a tete- e- tete on the psychology of dreams, romantic or diabolical or even dervish, did he cursorily touch on the recurring malaise. Since they were not going to do a thesis on it they let it pass but the annoying question lingered in Anantharaman. How he never got it when he was on those jaunts?
He remembered the vivid, compassionate visage of his wife, Kausalya, who would massage his back whenever he got up with a start from deep slumber. “Ananthu! The dream is back, I know. I will get a hot cup of tea to assuage your intrepid heart. Keep still for a while and you will fall asleep again.” Even at midnight she would never show a trace of fatigue and attend to her chores though she knew WHAT LED TO IT! And she could find no convincing answer to the query as to why she didn’t get the dream which was after all the aftermath of a nightmare.
It was’nt Kausalya but his daughter Sneha who now looked at him solicitously. “Appa! You are sweating a bit. Your morning paper has dropped from your lap. Just cool down and get back to it,” she said with her eyebrow creased into a puzzled frown. She handed the newspaper to him.
He could hear the muffled conversation inside the kitchen and smiled. His wife would never reveal the story behind the dream to Sneha, he knew and sighed with tremulous recollection of the past when his life was caught in the womb of a tornado and tossed into a tumultuous spin.
It was a day which stretched into a long nightmare before descending into a new dawn, a new horizon where they had to learn to live with the changed environs. A day that metamorphosed into a recurring dream.
His moorings in Palakad where he breathed his early growth into a combustible youth of dare, energy and camaraderie were stolid with his parents living in a comfortable independent house of inheritance. Anantaraman loved his subject of commerce and the core of banking that his friends egged him on to take up a job in a bank. “It would be cool, steady hours with no more than the usual pressures that such a job gave. And you retire with a pension to cool your heels, watching the garden in your home.” Quite a romantic, appealing picture of a bank job as it seemed to him then though he never ever thought he would land in one. Neither did it fall from the tree. In those days he had to undergo an entrance test (objective type where answers came in the shape of options and had to be ticked) for clerical/officer categories.
Anantaraman was too studious and judicious in updating his knowledge on financial, political and other areas that he was found wanting in none. He spent a few months of diligence in sharpening his memory with the vast data so that the exam turned out to be a cakewalk. “I knew you would make it” said one of his friends slapping him on the back partly out of chagrin that his own cavalier attitude had let him down. He made it into the officer cadre in a scheduled bank which then was well dispersed in Kerala and was yet to branch out across the country. To cap the windfall he was also posted in a town which was a couple of hours down the highway where the bank had its headquarters. “Sometimes you stretch your hand and the manna falls, doesn’t it?” he joked to his friends. “I never thought I would get a posting like this.” The other reacted rather ruefully “When I thrust my hand I cop up only a crow’s leftover” but it was papered away with banter.
A month’s training ensued and he soon was part of the laidback routine of banking involving regular deputations to other areas, deposit mobilization and bringing the bank closer to the middle class and business environs. Garrulous that he was he also loved travel fascinated by the vegetation rich and palm fringed interiors of the state. He struck a chord well and made a name instantly. It was then he gave a thought to settling down in the town of his posting though he knew well that transfers all over the state would be inevitable. “I would build a house here, park my life for ever,” he mused.
Anantharaman had to leg it out even in those days when land cost quite a bit and he pooled some savings of his, a generous grant from his dad and Kausalya. But building on it was a different cup of tea but once he bought the land he could rely on a small, comfortable bank loan with a fetching interest rate that employees like him enjoyed. He took personal delight in supervising the work done by the contractor and few laborers’ under him as Kausalya had her own feminine idiosyncrasies tailored to her taste. Yes, he thanked the stars that his good fortune continued as he remained in service in the town with only the sword of transfer hanging over the neck, never coming down.
When Kalyan was born to him he was enraptured to see his fair, glowing face with a cop of thick black hair and puffed cheeks which genetically took him back to his paternal grandfather. “He resembles thatha….” he insisted with his wife who argued perhaps with a strong strand of logic that resemblance had a mixed genetic flair, not a singular one. Anantharaman stuck to his ground though his father rapped him on the back grinning “See to it that he gets educated in this town or the state even if his father is round-tripped on transfer. “ Sure enough it happened and it was a long haul to Thiruvananthapuram.
Kalyan was just two when Anantharaman came on a fortnight’s holiday to the town to be with the family. Kausalya had left her son in a kindergarten to while a couple of hours away from home so that she could look after her chores with a languid gait. The day Anantharaman came it was raining heavily but he managed to reach home from the railway station which was not far. He was delighted to be with his son while Kausalya chided him for not only coming alone and empty handed (he had no inclination to stop and buy anything daunted by the heavy sheet of rain) but also bringing rain with him. Their laughter and jocosity lasted just a day.
It was a pouring night, in effect, where the dark expanse looked almost ethereal and the steady crackle of rain was hardly heard or even noticed. Anantharaman and Kausalya did see the sky looking pale but clear in the evening with the dull glow of stars, rather perfunctory. They had been to the temple nearby and returned chattering about the small things of life which generally got blown out of proportion by some for their peculiar, temperamental foibles. Kalyan began prancing around delighted to be home and also at home with his toys. They had dinner and as was the practice shut the glass windows of their bed room when the patter of rain was heard.
“Ananthu! It is raining. It has come on time as is normal in Kerala. We will have our usual heavy spells and a prolonged lull. God! I don’t have to water the garden.” Kausalya smiled.
“Yeah…only yesterday you were pulling me up for not buying sweets and gifts for Kalyan on my way home. Now you feel pumped up about the monsoon. I wonder why people go crazy over rain, running into the streets to get drenched as if it is the greatest thing to have happened. I call it unnecessary exuberance. “ Anantharaman had no fascination for nature or its munificence though he instinctively fell for the grace and beauty of the hillside. Kausalya had a variety of flowers so well manicured and crafted that she took pride in her garden as the most beaming green of all in the street.
“Áh! That’s typical of you, insipid brat. I have never seen you once giving me a peck on the cheek for my love of gardening and the pain of nurturing one. “ Both laughed. Anantharaman made a mock bow and said tongue in cheek “right madam…I will start watering it once the rain halts its job.”
Their street was rather revelatory of the structure of the town and sloping down to a dead end. It was one of those curious features like the trisection of roads where believers in good fortune always had a small shrine of Lord Ganesa to ward off dark forces. Calm and divinely cut off from traffic on arterial roads it was a blessing, Kausalya thought. A rectangular wall fenced off the stretch from the field beyond which homes spaced sporadically was visible. During rain the water flowed down the slope into the arterial road but it dried out in no time after a lull. There were only three houses on the one side and a long fence on the other ran right across to the arterial road giving the residents a feeling of having been cooped up in perfect cool ambience. But this time it poured, poured and poured with the inmates cocooned in sleep unaware of the strange guttural gurgle slowly spreading out.
It was the steady, menacing patter that woke him up. He got down from the bed to find the floor sticking damp though there was no evidence of water flowing in. It was the wetness of the ground that seeped in. Kalyan was sleeping peacefully though his breathing was heavy and phlegm ridden. Kausalya stretched herself lazily. “Must be about 6.30 right?” Anantharaman didn’t reply and looked out of the window. A two foot thick sheet of static rain water had buried in half most of the garden.
“Kausalya….take a look. It is a bit alarming to me.” She peeped out exclaiming “How come there is so much of stagnant rain water? It has never happened before.”
“That’s not what worries me. The point is will the rain stop? I see no evidence of it.” He came out on the verandah and found the sky uncannily grey and gloomy. Kausalya was right behind. “Ananthu….it looks as if it will rain non stop for three days. I wonder whether we can move out to buy anything, let alone necessary groceries. Let me get coffee, any way.”
“We can ring the mall nearby to bring the supplies but will they be able to bring it?” Anantharaman precipitately went to the bedroom to check on Kalyan whose hard breathing puzzled and worried him. The boy was running a slight temperature but appeared normal. He took the cup of coffee from his wife and both found the steaming beverage relieving. “Our boy has got cold. You have some ready relief drugs right?” Kausalya nodded. The whole town appeared to be unseemly quiet but for the occasional interruptions of noisy auto or bus groaning ahead on the arterial road. Not a soul was in sight or was any sound heard. Birds stuck to their niche in the trees and furiously flapped their wet wings.
Kalyan got up, was immediately given a hot cup of horlicks and cajoled to lie on bed despite his protests. Being a prankster he went for the toys though he felt uncomfortable not knowing why. Kausalya went about her chores while Anantharaman bathed early in hot water. They all had a good lunch as was their practice in the morning and Kalyan was given a liquid lunch. But the scene outside was far from reassuring and in fact the ardor of the downpour had increased. It was all dark and glimpses of the sky looked intimidating.
“Ananthu! It is frightening, I mean the atmosphere outside but we have rarely seen anything like it, have we?” she whispered, snuggling close to his chest. He eased her shoulder affectionately. “Don’t worry…it’s unusual but the monsoon was predicted to be heavy. There is no wind and that’s some relief. But the stillness, the strange quiet and rare signs of traffic make it appear as if life has come to a dead end. It will pass.” His hand eased her copious, dark tresses.
Fed with liquid diet Kalyan was chirpy and active till evening when some worrying signs surfaced – severe phlegm, short breathing and fever. Kausalya showed the first symptoms of tension with the rain relentlessly getting heavier. “Ananthu! Can we see through the night? I hope I will see Kalyan in normal shape in the morning. “ Stuck for words he stared numb for a moment and said “Kausalya! We have to hope for the best but first thing in the morning is to take him to our family doctor in the next street. He is a GP and perhaps will assuage all our worries. ” He couldn’t trust his own voice and the words sounded distant to him. “Let us pray through the night. “
“Give him a ring. Keep him posted. I don’t think we can move out now,” she said. When the doctor came on the line his tale was even drearier. “Anantharaman! Better not to move out now. My house in no better shape and the water has clogged the lane. I will give you some instructions and hope you have one or two of the antibiotics. The weather is damp and so as a precaution let him have a woolen sweater. “ Anantharaman was relieved to find one drug at home and fed his son. He went to the verandah to check the car in the portico around which a thick sheet of water stagnated. “Come what may we will take him to that hospital in the morning.”
It dawned exceedingly wet and the worried couple looked out of the window crestfallen. They had taken the precautions as would a family that was inevitably ignorant of the medical intricacies. Kalyan ran high fever, was coughing a bit alarmingly. It was 10.30 in the morning when the decision was taken to go to the hospital two km away. Kausalya’s lips turned to a firm line when she told him “even if the roads are potholed or alarmingly broken I don’t care. We should be there in half an hour.”
The car screeched its way out of the gate and slowly wound to the arterial road. Anantharaman saw through the pale bluish haze heavy stream of rain pouring across the light wind. While Kausalya spoke to the GP who advised her to go to the hospital with the promise to be there Anantharaman carefully navigated the route to reach the highway. As he turned right he was dumbstruck to see that the scene was empty and bleak. Not a soul was in sight. Shops were shuttered and a mile away some people were sheltering under the bus stand or shop roofs with towels used as headgears. An uncanny, indecipherable threat loomed in the whistle of the light wind. They looked forlorn as if they knew the rain would never stop. “How did they find themselves there?” mused Anantharaman. He was worried that the car would hit a ditch or conk, the latter being the worst of the Hobson’s choices. Kausalya looked from her son to the road and was in deep prayer. After nearly an hour’s meticulous driving the couple sighted the hospital gate to their big relief.
Under the big portico he could see families sitting on the steps and some more inside the verandah. Nurses were running around and one of them told the people not to crowd around the wards. Thankfully the power was on. As the couple entered the verandah Kausalya whispered in rising concern “Hope the power doesn’t go off when it matters. It is what I dread.” Anantharaman had the same apprehension when a nurse approached him. The normal reception desk was empty for reasons not difficult to fathom.
Most of the beds were occupied with worry lining the kin’s faces. Some of them apparently had been there for some time and quite a few were fresh entrants with different compelling entreaties. It was a three floor hospital with half a dozen doctors on duty with their crimson eyes showing lack of or deferred sleep.
Kalyan was coughing regularly now and sputum on a couple of occasions sent the parental concerns a notch up. They confronted the nurse who understood the problem of the boy from a look and directed them to first floor. “I am Devi and will be there in a few seconds.” She spoke in soothing tone as they rushed to the lift. Kausalya, in festering anxiety, tugged at the apron of a young doctor’s coat who was attending to a patient. “Doctor! He is running a fever, has severe cough and rarely slept last night. “ The young doctor looked hard at her for a moment, then softened. “Go to bed no. 6 at the corner immediately. I will be there in a few seconds.” When Kalyan was laid on the bed Anantharaman felt his forehead and was instantly alarmed by the nature of the fever. Nurse Devi was there spot on and as a precaution put him on a nasal tube. The doctor examined Kalyan, turned to enquire about his age, other details and gave a series of instructions to Devi.
“The doctor wants you to get these medicines from downstairs. Thankfully all are available. Kalyan will have to be here for observation and medication for a couple of days at least. “ said Devi. She turned to Anantharaman. “Sir, you both will have to remain here. His diet will have to be taken care of. You have a car, I suppose….you will have to get things when we ask for it. “ Anantharaman felt as if he was in a cauldron and was unable to say anything more than mumble “thank you….I will do all that you want me to.” Kausalya got to the nub of it by asking a candid question to Devi. “Sister.. we will take care of all that but tell me about his condition. “ Devi, in her mid thirties, said “you have to brace up. He is in advanced stage of pneumonia. We can take no chances and will do all that we can.” Anantharaman blurted inevitably “But sister, we wasted no time in bringing him here. He started running fever only yesterday evening. We gave him antibiotics prescribed by a GP which we had in reserve.”
Devi raised a hand to calm him down. “Sir…you are not to be blamed for anything. You have taken all precautions and leave us to do our job.”
The next 24 hours turned out to be a drift down the chasm for the numbed couple. The young doctor and Devi took all the precautions and medical resources on hand to revive Kalyan as would have been demanded of their professional ethics. No stone was left unturned.
Around 6 pm the next day evening Anantharaman sat on the cushioned chair outside looking too dumbfounded to be given reassurance. Kausalya’s plight was worse as hours of anxiety and hope chasing each other like a truant had exhausted her. Her role as Ananthu’s ever present counselor had evaporated by noon because for the next two hours the doctors were too busy attending to so many patients in the ward and had little time for individual attention. Was it the nature of the situation that tied up their hands or perhaps their mind too went into a tailspin? Anantharaman stared at the wall blankly while the question raced in his mind. Rather he heard it too in his mind but was too fatigued to even listen to it. Rain was coming in spasms now but the clouds remained dark grey and he felt a sudden rush of anger at the elements. “Damn the rain…Kausalya. I hate it. I loathe its very sight ….. it’s sickening.”
She couldn’t bring herself to respond and muttered “Ananthu…for two hours there has been no response from the doctors in ICU. I am now even scared to ask and slowly dropping into the pits. “
Their eyes met and suddenly Anantharaman felt a shooting spasm of fear. Really? He shook his head and turned away. Kausalya leaned on his shoulder and instinctively his arm went around her protectively.
Time mattered little as it went but the rising panic or alarm could not be wished away. Kausalya appeared too emotionally distraught for him to say anything remotely consolatory as he himself was at his wit’s edge. “I wouldn’t want to see that young doctor come out. “ he muttered. “If….by any chance he drops a boulder on my head.” It was one of those occasions when he thought he was on a lonely wild stretch where even hoping for relief would be an exercise in vanity.
An hour later the doctor tailed by Devi came and confronted the anxiety infested face of the parents. Kausalya just blurted out “How is he doctor?” while Anantharaman’s vocal chords got stuck. The young doctor looked a little crestfallen that he had to convey the news and also incapacitated to do so. “Madam….I have to say what I have to, “ he searched for the right words the occasion demanded and failed to find any. “I hate myself though for having to say that. I couldn’t save him madam. “ He turned his head away lapsing into silence.
Kausalya gripped the sofa’s arm for balance and sat. She stared petrified, unable to digest or reconcile to the words of the doctor. Devi sat next and pressed her face to her chest muttering soothingly “madam…please. Nobody would want to convey this kind of message to any one. It is all because of a combination of events which was beyond control. What else can I say?”
Anantharaman’s face was a mask of repressed agony. It was as if the whole world had drained out of his eyes. “Doctor….but how could it happen? We brought him well in time riding our anxiety all the way. There was not even a passing thought in us that it would come to this. Only yesterday evening he caught the symptoms. No way we could have messed up doctor.” He was unable to push down the rising feeling of contrition that their panic or unintended negligence could have contributed to it.
The doctor pressed his arm. “It all happened in a rush Anantharaman. The kid was too fragile to stand up to the rigours of a sudden, debilitating attack. I tell you, my friend, it was nobody’s fault. It is not to shake you out of your shock but just being honest.”
Anantharaman collapsed on the sofa while Devi kept caressing the back of Kausalya whose sobs were getting convulsive.
The silence was excruciating then.
Three months passed by as if in requiem with the couple not even aware of it. Their chat had dwindled to monosyllabic trickle with Kausalya attending to her daily chores or phone calls as if by rote. Suddenly a pall of gloom fell in their midst and they were unable to chase away its shadow. He hardly went in the evenings to meet any friend or thought of a social call and neither felt in their extreme stress the need to visit a temple. It was their routine three months before the beam crashed – the death of their beloved son. If perhaps pressed softly Anantharaman would have snapped back “In what way does a temple matter? Or a social call? Do they really mean anything now?” It would brook no argument.
SOMEHOW THEIR LONG AND ENFORCED RETREAT FROM THE ENVIRONS REDUCED THEM TO A PALE SHADOW.
They recognized familiar faces with a wan smile or broke into brief meaningless chats with no intention to prolong it. In between came the shocker of the dream when Kausalya realized with sick agony what her husband had been afflicted with. It was then that Devi visited them.
Kausalya was preparing noon coffee for both when she heard the customary greeting of her hubby in the verandah. Who is the visitor? She came to the verandah, saw Devi and greeted her with a forced, synthetic smile. Silence hung like a allergic cloud of dust between them when Devi broke it.
“Sir…I hope you have recovered now to some extent or are you, forgive me for saying, still in the pits?”
Anantharaman took time to respond. “Sister! Yours is a normal query but our experience was not normal, was it? Okay we are better now with our efforts to keep his memory locked up in the attic. “
Kausalya butted in with irritation than asperity. “How can we undo the loss?”
Devi gave her a searching look, smiled. “Madam! That’s what I am here for. I may be used to anguish and limitless agony suffered by some and also happiness felt by others when a patient recovers from a hopeless state. It is part of my job. But I also have a high degree of empathy which my job demands.” She paused, gazed at her folded palm and continued. “That’s why I am here to make a proposal. I have no idea how you will react to it. But my gut feeling says if you take it up you will have no occasion to regret it later. “
The couple couldn’t get the drift. Anantharaman said “Say it sister. I am puzzled but listening. “ Kausalya gazed at her fingers.
“We have been running an orphanage home for years, mostly through donations from well meaning people and some companies. It is secure, well managed and respected. “ She paused. “We don’t allow any kind of gossip, allegations or recriminations to even stain the walls. We keep our account ledgers, file our returns and have been getting a clean billing. “
There was silence for a while with the couple wondering where it was leading to. Devi continued. “ Sir, I request you to visit us this week end and have a look at this three year old girl, who is the star attraction in the home – chirpy, laughing and keeping everyone merry. She was abandoned three years ago at our door step and we rushed out to see the wretched soul who did it. There was no trace. We brought the wailing kid in as we had to attend to her immediately. We waited for a few days to get her registered as the mother could change her mind. “ She looked out of the window and turned to Anantharaman. “Well, the mother never turned up and you can spend your time in the world of hopeless guesses. Since then she has been with us. We gave her a new name, took necessary care and saw her grow up. “
Devi didn’t have to elaborate. The couple understood and looked at each other. Silence emerged inevitably between them for a while and muzzled their response. Devi knew the enormity of their silence. Anantharaman broke it. “Well sister, I can get the drift. But for a couple in deep despair it is not an easy decision to make, is it? “
Devi cut in. “Sir, I know but all that I am saying is you come to our home and have a look at the girl. Then take your time.”
Kausalya pressed Devi’s arm and said “Leave it to me sister. We will come there one day, whatever we decide. “
Anantharaman’s reverie was broken by a sharp rebuke from Kausalya. “You have been sitting like this for nearly an hour. Sneha left you coffee then and it is horribly cold now. You were not even aware that she has left for office. When will you take bath and come for lunch?”
He stammered, grinned and asked innocently “What’s time Kausalya? I wasted my second round of coffee too. It is the fallout of the disturbed sleep last night and the dream right now. ”
Kausalya put her arm around him. “Forget coffee. I will get another one for you. Sneha at times gets curious why do you slip into a reverie like that? Ananthu, Kalyan is there in our memory, an indelible portrait. Time cannot erase it as long as we are alive any more than the fact that we kept it away from Sneha when we adopted her. She was a chirpy baby of three then with an incubated memory where her own past had not left any footprint. She has no notion about her past, thinks we are her parents and to this day has never asked about Kalyan. Nor have we told her.”
Anantharaman nodded. “Kausalya! All that I remember that evening we met her in the home after Devi made the proposal was her sunny laugh and baby like chirpings which left me stunned. Her face even now retains that sparkle of innocence which has a shadow of resemblance to Kalyan. I feel it at times. “
Kausalya squeezed his shoulder. “She is a strident, confident woman now, Ananthu with a cool, controlled disposition. We have to think of her life ahead now. Yet it is that innocence in her which should not be stung with a reference to Kalyan. Let her not know our past any more than hers. Certain things, Ananthu, can be better kept in the attic, safe and spotless. “
Anantharaman took her hands into his own and looked into her lustrous, dark eyes where memories shone like a distant star. He smiled. “My sweet mate, when did I see last the spark of grace and beauty in those eyes?”
Kausalya laughed heartily. “Come, stop wooing me now. We have passed that stage long back. I won’t bring the coffee here. Come to kitchen. Stop fooling around and get back to your morning chores.”
THE DREAM NEVER RETURNED. A NEW LEAF TURNED.