Trilok was sitting at the front of his house in the morning sun. Holding the day’s newspaper at arm’s length, he was scanning the pages with difficulty. He had misplaced his reading glasses once again.
‘The country is going in the gutter’, he muttered stroking his bald head.
Laxmi called for him from the kitchen; his sooji halwa was ready.
He neatly folded the newspaper, pressed it under his left armpit, held his lungi with his left hand, picked up the faded blue plastic chair in his right hand and went inside.
‘For so long I am calling you. Growing deaf, eh?’.
He looked at her with tired eyes. She was standing at the kitchen’s door. A small woman with her sari hitched and beads of sweat on her forehead crowned by greying hair. The aroma of ghee was escaping from the kitchen behind her. He washed his hands at the tap in the courtyard and sat down on the grass mat at his usual place facing the basil plant.
‘Amit called. Was saying that he will take us this time with him to Pune. Ekdum pakka’, she said ladling halwa in a stainless steel bowl. The bowl had his name, Trilok Kumar, etched on its side.
He grunted. She stopped and waited for his reaction. But he gave none.
Laxmi’s stare was irritating him. He was hungry.
‘That boy will surely come to take us one day. You see’, Laxmi provoked him.
He kept eating. When he had finished he loudly cleared his throat and went to his room to lie down for his nap. In bed he thought about his boy. Not a boy anymore. He was Major Amit Kumar now.
Amit was born after twelve years of his marriage with Laxmi. There was not a single god left to whom they had not begged for a child. Trilok used to drive another man’s auto rickshaw those days. He remembered the nights outside the railway station waiting for fare and the abuse at the hands of the policemen and the little bribes for defying NO ENTRY to catch the fare before others.
When Amit started crawling, he bought his own rickshaw. He worked hard for him, sleeping three to four hours a day, sometimes less, earned money and saved it for his education so that his son could have a better life. A smile played on his face, softening the deep lines. He remembered his passing out parade in Dehradun. How strange Laxmi was looking in her bright new sari. The memory filled him with compassion for her. Poor woman. Her life had been hard.
It had been eight years since Amit’s commissioning in the Army. He was given four weeks of leave after that. Going back when his leave was over he had promised to return soon to take both of them with him where they could live comfortably. But why had he not come yet?
‘Must be that girl he married. Why else would he not come? We are his parents’. Laxmi’s voice dragged him out of his reverie.
‘At least he is happy there, I suppose’.
‘I hope so. First getting married like this and now he calls even less’.
‘He must be very busy as an officer’. There was a hint of pride in his voice. It was true he missed him and dreamed of meeting his son every day. But it was okay. At least he sent them money regularly. The auto rickshaw was sold years ago as the doctor advised him to stay at home. It was his heart. First he employed a man from his village to run the auto but when the man started giving trouble he decided to sell it. Now he remained at home and read the newspaper from front to back the whole day. He napped often and remembered his days running the auto in the city. ‘Maybe, I shouldn’t have been so harsh with him that day. He liked the girl. Who were we to decide?’ ‘Don’t blame yourself. You behaved like a normal father. There is nothing wrong in that’. Laxmi fanned herself with the pallu of her sari. It was the third time the power has been cut. ‘Next month I will get the inverter for you’. ‘I don’t want any inverter-sinverter. I am fine. Have you taken your medicine?’ ‘Yeah’.
He got up and picked up the newspaper. Laxmi went and fetched a steel plate full of ladyfinger and an old knife, its handle wrapped with string. She squatted in front of his cot and began cutting the vegetable in small, equal sized pieces.
Suddenly she stopped, looked up and asked him, ‘What if he doesn’t come back? Ever’. He ignored her question. Yes, what if he doesn’t? ‘No. No. he is our son. He will come you see. One day he will come’, he assured her. But he knew the hollowness of this. But why shatter her hopes with the hammer of reality? Hope is a benevolent killer if it is too far from reality. Drunk with hope, man fails to grasp the hard truth standing before him and gradually loses it all. When finally the charade can’t continue, he is crushed by the weight of reality. Laxmi woke him up for lunch. He had dozed off with the newspaper in his lap. ‘Amit called. I did not wake you from sleep. Said he would come next month’. The joy was visible on her face. It shone with motherly love and anticipation of seeing her son. ‘We don’t have much time then. We should start preparing’. He tried his best to hide his emotions. He felt dizzy from excitement. He was flying above the earth now. But he pretended to sound normal and ate his chapati. My son is coming. Yes he is coming. He held onto the cot for balance. Laxmi had already come into action. ‘Go to the market and bring gram flour, ghee and sugar. Almonds and cashew too. And get the large kadhai, the black one from the loft for me’. ‘He won’t eat any of your ladoos. He is grown up now’. ‘Why don’t you keep your ideas to yourself and do what I ask’. He was surprised and at the same time pleased at this reprimand. He chuckled and nodded. ‘What about the house?’ ‘What about the house?’ She couldn’t understand. ‘We don’t know how long will we stay there. Why not find a tenant?’ ‘As you see fit. But…’ ‘What?’ ‘What if we have to come back after a few days? Where would we live then?’ ‘Huh! He won’t be coming to take us for a few days’, he countered. ‘Ok. Now don’t stand there arguing with me. Go now’. He took the cloth bag made of his old trousers, one of many Laxmi fabricated with her senile sewing machine at regular intervals, off its peg, took enough money from the safe and put it inside the secret pocket of his trousers and left for the market. He did not take a rickshaw. He needed a walk to think. How his son would look. He pictured the scene of the meeting in his head. When he thought about his son, a tall, impressive young man, his chest swelled with pride. His son was coming home after eight years. He will welcome him with an embrace. The neighbours must see this. His officer son. He will definitely shut the mouths of Srivastav and that know-it-all Chauhan this time. he had had enough of their banter. How dare they presume to know about his son more than him?
The bag was heavy and he was sweating from the effort. But he kept walking. No time for the rickshaw now. It was not very far anyway. There was a strange shooting pain in his chest. He felt his chest burn. It was difficult to breath. He struggled and looked around for help but the road was empty. He tried to call Laxmi on his phone but it fell from his hand. Everything was spinning around him now. He heard the sound of him falling on the road but didn’t feel anything as if he was outside his body and hearing everything like an onlooker. The bag spilled its content in the dust. Just before all the sounds died and whiteness engulfed everything he saw a helicopter in the sky. He heard the voice of five year old Amit.
‘Papa, Dekho! Helicopter!’