‘MOTHER SERIOUS RETURN HOME’ The hotel concierge handed Raman the telegram as soon as he returned at six o’clock in the evening. He had to catch a train early next morning to a tourist spot 500 KM away from his current location and almost double that distance from home. All the arrangements had been made by his office and he only had to pack, dine and sleep until the clerk woke him up in the wee hours of the morning.
In the three years of hectic life as a travel writer Raman had not been home even once. Work had kept him way too busy. He also wanted to give his older brother the space and the time he would need to settle down in his newly married life. Content in the thought that mother was now in the hands of his elder brother, with a daughter-in-law to look after her womanly needs; he kept postponing his visit home. And now this, a serious, cryptic unsigned missive that foreshadowed more than it revealed. It had reached his office first before it was relayed to him by the clerk there. No one knew his whereabouts except the clerk in the office. It arrived now without the sender’s name and this matter disconcerted him no less than the content of the message.
He dialed his home telephone number, but merely got a recorded response that the number was no longer in use. When was the last time he had called home? He checked the number in his diary; no, he did not make a mistake. The number had apparently changed some time in the last six months or so. Even so, there was no hint of any ailment regarding his mother. His brother had sounded guarded the last time he had spoken; he remembered thinking about it at that time, but then his brother always spoke very little and the matter subsequently slipped out of his consciousness. At the very least, his brother could have inserted the new number in the message. That is, if it was his brother who had sent the message in the first place and there was a new number to insert.
He picked up the phone once again. He called his office and citing domestic emergency reported unavailability for an indefinite period. He never needed a holiday, for his work centered on picnic spots and holiday resorts. Nevertheless, this AWOL might not be taken lightly by the office; in any case it was beside the point that demanded his immediate attention. Now that it was done, he must attend to first things first. He then went straight to the bus station and took the first available bus home.
K, the ayah who had been loyally serving the family since his father’s time, opened the door. After his father’s death she had moved in and became part of the family. She wiped her eyes with the end of her sari and let Raman in with a warm welcome.
The first thing that struck Raman as he stepped into the house was the eerie silence. The quiet interiors once again disconcerted him, just as the unsigned message had done the previous day. The tick of the wall clock in the hall sounded loud. The rooms were bare, except for the old dining table with two chairs and a solitary cane chair in the hall instead of the sofa set he had grown accustomed to. There were blank unsullied rectangles on the walls where earlier his family photographs had been hung. The carpets were gone too; a charpoy with a bundle of clothes wrapped in a sari at one end probably served as a bed for K. A decrepit wooden cot with its loosely knitted and alternating layers of cotton strips lay on its side, pushed against a wall in another room. There was no sign of his mother. The kitchen too was sparse and the clatter of utensils when his mother cooked their meal was sorely missing. His heart raced and he felt the soft pounding in his chest. He could barely speak as he turned round to ask K about his mother.
The ayah pointed at the ceiling and led the way upstairs. He did not know there was a room above the house; his brother had never mentioned the addition to the house. At the head of the stairs, the ayah stepped aside and motioned him to go inside.
Raman felt a great relief sweep over him as he saw his mother sitting in a straight-back chair near the window. She had her back to him and looked out intently through the open window. Here too the room begged for furniture. A small iron cot with a cotton mattress lay in one corner of the room and a low stool beside it contained some medicines. In the bare shelves on the wall behind it clothes were kept folded and stacked. Ignoring a strange feeling that something was amiss, he walked up to her and said softly, “Ma, I have come.”
She did not respond. She looked frail. Her face was set, like one chiseled from stone. She wore a crumpled white sari; and her arms and neck were bare, conspicuous by the absence of jewelry. She did not bat an eyelid when he spoke, nor was there any indication that she had heard him at all. Raman raised his hand to touch her shoulder and then instinctively drew back. Something was just not right. He turned round towards ayah in quiet desperation. The ayah had come into the room and watched the spectacle with tears in her eyes. She sighed and shot him a resigned look, and then left the room as quietly as she had entered it.
Raman saw that the window overlooked a small park adjoining the street below. There was a mango tree in one corner and a neem tree in the other. Birds flew between the trees and a row of crows swayed on a telephone wire across the park. His mother’s gaze had not shifted once since he came into the room.
He followed K downstairs and slumped into the cane chair, his mind racing with the obvious unanswered questions.
K disappeared into the kitchen and a few minutes later returned with a hot cup of coffee. “I have made idlis, Raman babu. You might want to take bath first. You look tired after the night journey.” She handed him the coffee cup and stood respectfully near the kitchen door.
He sipped coffee and felt the hot concoction lift his sagging eyelids: the journey had been bumpy, for there were several bad patches on the way, and sleep had evaded his troubled mind.
“What’s gone with Amma? Why won’t she talk?”
Lacking finesse, but with a load of compassion, K told him, touching her brimming eyes with her sari, “She cannot recognize any of us, Raman babu. She has lost her mind.”
Raman choked on the steaming liquid and coughed to clear his throat.
“Maybe it is just a temporary loss of memory?” he hoped fervently.
“No, Raman babu; she rarely talks and when she does she is incoherent. She babbles sometimes like a child. Mostly, she sits still and lost in her own world, whatever it is.”
“Does she sit like that all day?”
K nodded. “Yes sir. But one must watch her at all times. She might just decide to get up and walk out of the house.”
The wall clock chimed the hour loud and vibrant. Raman followed K as she went upstairs to give medicine to his mother. He watched her collect some pills in her palm from the stool beside the bed; she administered them to his mother one by one. His mother turned her head once to look at K, remained in the same position and gulped the medicine, and then resumed her gaze through the window. Thank God, she is not resisting the medicine. He placed himself right next to the ayah, but it was as though he was invisible to his mother.
He felt awkward standing there as a mute witness, helpless and bewildered. He went downstairs, bathed and ate his breakfast in silence.
“Is there anything you want me to fetch from the market?”
“No, Raman babu; we have sufficient groceries to last us for a week.” She said she would keep the lunch ready for him.
“Which doctor prescribed the medicine for mother?”
“Dr. Vaidyanathan on the cross-roads, adjacent to the Shanti Cinema. He was referred to by your family doctor.”
“Fetch me the prescription. I shall have a word with him.”
Raman wiped the beads of perspiration on his forehead: the morning Sun burned fiercely down, heating up the air and created oily mirages on the tar road. As he skirted the park, he looked up at his mother’s window before heading towards the market place. The sunlight glinted off the window pane and he probably imagined more than he saw a faint silhouette behind the barred window.
He took the auto-rickshaw to the town’s center where the psychiatrist, a tall slim gentleman of thick gray hair and a Hitler mustache, had his office.
“What is my mother’s problem, doctor?” he asked, after putting the preliminaries out of the way as quickly as possible.
“In clinical terms…” began the doctor, but Raman held his hand up and said, “Please doctor, tell me in plain language.”
“For some reason your mother withdrew into herself; so much so that she cannot think consecutively. She can no longer think, talk or act coherently. She needs help in her daily chores. She can sit and do nothing for hours or when she walks she may not stop until forced to do so.”
“Is it a temporary thing? Will she get over it?”
“I can’t say for sure. I have seen a case or two where the person led a normal life after a time, but it is just as likely that the person might go beyond the point of no return.”
“Why does she need those medicines, doctor? Could she become violent?”
“Oh, no; the medicine is primarily intended to calm her nerves. I was told that she tried to walk away from the house twice. It is necessary to keep her a little drugged to prevent hyperactivity.”
“Will it have any side-effects?”
“I am afraid not, unless she continues to take them for a long period of time.”
“How long? And what is the effect?”
“Say, for over five years or so. It is likely to make the nerves so course, so insensitive, that she will cease to become active.”
Raman fell silent, looking vacantly before him. He decided to study more about the case on the Internet. Probably he should try some alternative therapies and rely less on medication.
The doctor said, “I could suggest you a clinic where she would be treated very professionally. I visit the patients there regularly.”
“Oh, no no no!” Raman felt shocked. “I will take care of my mother, thank you. My brother was looking after her before, but from now on she will be under my personal care.”
“Your brother brought her to me when she was at an advanced stage. Probably there would have been a chance of early recovery if I had seen her sooner.”
Raman felt awkward to talk about his missing brother and ashamed at his own ignorance of his family matters.
“Is there anything I can do, doctor? Personally, I mean, could I help?”
Dr. Vaidyanathan thought hard and consulted from a book which he had picked up from a row of hefty tomes behind his desk.
Some medical journals were kept stacked on his desk. There was also a pad with a paper clipped to it. Raman could see that the paper was headed with the current date followed by a long list of names. Some of the names were struck off the list and many more remained that the doctor had apparently to see.
“Try to talk to her gently about the good things in her life. Make sure you provide an ambience of the things she had lived by, if possible. Are you married?”
“A female companion could help, but one who understands her situation very well.”
Raman thought of the ayah and felt reassured.
“Was there any quarrel in the house? Was she greatly upset about anything?” The doctor asked after a while.
Raman shook his head in the negative. “I have just returned home after having been away for a very long time. There is a lot I need to catch up with.”
“I am afraid your brother did not offer much for me to work with in this case. If you find out, do please let me know.”
“Sure, doctor. Thank you very much. I will certainly update you on my next visit.”
Before leaving, Raman paid the doctor’s dues, which his brother had apparently left unpaid.
“When did anna leave?” He asked the ayah about his brother as he dusted the two metallic trunks on the attic and brought them down to the hall with her help.
Lifting the lid off the trunks, he surveyed the contents – photo albums, mementos, and faded books, a few idols carved out of wood and stone and a few bed sheets. A damp smell emanated indicating the age and the neglect which the trunks and their contents faced in their cobwebbed home on the loft.
Ayah took out the contents one by one, wiped each item with a dust cloth and put it aside carefully for Raman to take it or leave it. “About two months ago; I do not know where he moved into. In the beginning, he used to come once in a week to check up on Amma. Now he comes once in two or three weeks.”
Raman opened an album; an old faded photograph from which his mother and his late father stared at him; the ayah was much younger then and had stood a little away from them, her head slightly bent.
“When did this…this happen to mother?”
“About six months ago, Raman babu, your adorable mother started showing signs of mental breakdown. She used to forget things at first, and then soon she lost all contact with us. Your brother did not immediately notice her deteriorating condition. It happened very fast.”
“Who sent the telegram, do you know?”
“Did you get it, Sir? I used to pester your brother almost every day to send it.”
“I am glad you did, ayah. I am much indebted to you.”
Raman separated some items and set them aside: a few snaps of the family and a couple idols.
He handed ayah a shopping bag of things he had purchased from the market earlier in the day. It contained a few apples and oranges, lots of leafy vegetables, a bunch of marigolds, and a handful of the fragrant chamanti flowers and a packet of incense sticks.
The ayah lifted herself up with a hand to the floor to support her aging body and trudged into the kitchen.
Raman quietly entered his mother’s room upstairs with a cloth bag filled with the things he purchased from the market and the items he selected from the trunks. He found his mother asleep on the cot where the ayah had tucked her in after helping her with lunch.
He set to work silently. He stuck the photographs on the wall near the window. On the sill he placed the idols with a couple of burning incense sticks. On the switchboard he inserted the electrical pins of night lamp into the socket: the dim light and the pleasantly audible strains of the single-stringed instrument, he hoped, would make the night pleasant for her to sleep.
After lunch he saw the ayah taking an afternoon nap. He set the iron cot in the bedroom, removed its straps completely and started to weave them again as tightly as he could. Then he spread the sheet on it and lay down to rest. He tiptoed upstairs every now and then to see if his mother had awakened and resumed her watch through the window.
He then sat down and pored over the articles he had collected from the Web during his market visit. He went through the reports filed by patients who were cured and whose condition somewhat matched his mother’s. One report especially drew his attention: the man had overcome his debilitating condition, which he realized, was made worse by the nerve-deadening medication he was undergoing. He made valiant attempts, he wrote, to control his own urges and extreme biological reactions. During lucid moments, he asked and understood his mental condition from trusted people around him.
The drug, the man wrote, had turned him into an idle lay about, fit for nothing. Without it, he became disoriented and did not talk or behave coherently. He gradually reduced his dependence on drugs. He fought his overpowering mental condition precisely every time he became aware of the slide into dementia. He declared in his report, which was attested to by the people around him, that by his own conscious effort he overcame his mental illness. He wrote that the drugs were actually pushing him beyond recall, not to mention the damage it was doing to him physically.
Raman read and re-read the report several times and slowly an idea began to take shape in his mind.
In the evening when the Sun lost its fiery hold over the earth, the ayah got up and made some coffee. She waited until he finished then proceeded to the stairs.
“Are you going to give Amma the medicine now?”
“Yes, Raman babu; it is time.”
“Skip it for now, ayah.”
“Are you sure? The doctor told me not to miss the dose.”
“It is OK ayah. Let’s skip the evening dose and observe her for a few days.”
Ayah shrugged and said: “We must keep a vigil in the night. Amma may give us the slip and walk out of the house.”
“I will keep a watch in the nights, ayah. You look after her in the day.”
“God bless you, Raman babu. I feel better already. I am sure Amma is in capable hands now.”
Raman bundled the unused contents back into the trunks and put them back up on the attic. He lifted the cot and pushed it against the wall.
“Why did anna leave the house?”
“Amma and chinnamma did not get along well. She wanted out, especially after Amma’s condition worsened.” Ayah referred to his sister-in-law as chinnamma, a customary form of address by the maid for the younger woman in the family.
“Did chinnamma go out to work?”
“No. I wish she did.”
Darkness swept into the room and turned the two figures into silhouettes, one sitting and the other standing against a wall. The tick-tick sounds from the wall clock punctuated the silences with metronomic regularity.
“What time did anna return from his office?”
“He worked very hard, I suppose. He came late and went to bed early. He kept himself out of the troubles at home.” The ayah collected some vegetables and proceeded towards the kitchen.
Raman got up and switched on the light. He drew the curtains close and asked the ayah if she needed any help with the dishes.
“No, Raman babu, I can manage all right. We are only three people now. You know I used to cook for the whole family at one time.” She sighed. “If only chinnamma had been less demanding …” her voice trailed off as she went into the kitchen.
Raman took out a sheet of plain paper from his travel bag and began noting down the things he would need to make a livable home.
“What was she like?” He recalled the small dark figure of his sister-in-law in the wedding: she had a sharp nose and a hard jaw that moved very little when she spoke. Raman had not seen her again and never spoke to her on the phone either.
“I mustn’t say this Sire but she is haughty. She has a forked tongue, Raman babu, like a snake’s.” The oil in the pan spluttered as a few drops of water fell into it from ayah’s wet hands; she had just washed the spinach under the sink.
“Be careful, ayah. Don’t get too close to the stove.”
“How different you are from your brother! You both shared the same womb and the same blood, yet you are so different.”
“What do you mean by a forked tongue? She says one thing and means something else?”
“I mean, she behaves differently when your brother is around; the moment he is out, she transforms. Like a chameleon, she changes colors, Sir.”
Raman wrote down all that he wanted to purchase from the market; he placed the note into his wallet.
“She ran the house like a sergeant major. She even made Amma part with her pension; she is addicted to shopping.”
“Amma could have asked them to leave.”
“Oh, she would never do that. She knew your brother would be broke very soon if he had to support his wife’s expensive lifestyle on his middling income.”
“I wonder how is getting along now. Why did he leave? Did Amma stop giving them money?”
“She could never do that consciously. They left after she had lost her mind and couldn’t sign the checks any more. On the other hand, they would have to bear the expense of keeping her going.”
Raman watched ayah give the final touches to the curry on the stove, even as she prepared the meal plate for his mother.
”Are you going to feed Amma now?”
“Yes, I am almost done. Check her out, Raman babu; I will be with you in a moment.”
One morning the postman arrived with a letter from Raman’s office. His manager demanded an explanation for his sudden absence from work without a definite date of return.
Raman penned a carefully worded response, giving the details of his present preoccupation and sought an extension of time. He hoped his credentials so far with the company would stand in good stead during his absence. He stepped out to post the letter.
When he returned he saw that the ayah had swept the floors clean. She washed her hands now and then served him breakfast and took another plate to carry upstairs for his mother.
“Is she eating well?”
“She likes my cooking, Raman babu; never complained. I wanted to cook the same kind of food for her, but chinnamma never allowed it. She would order me what to cook and that is that.”
“What did she order?”
“Cornflakes, noodles, oatmeal, and stuff like that – Amma hated that kind of food and her share would usually end up in the dust bin. When Amma resisted, Raman babu, chinnamma would abuse her, call her horrid names.” Ayah could barely control the flood in her eyes.
“Did Amma not complain to my brother?”
Ayah shook her head, her lips drawn out: “he wouldn’t interfere. He always looked lost and searching desperately for something. When he did listen, Chinnamma would intercept and talk him out of it sweetly. Very clever she is, Raman babu, very cunning.”
“Did Amma not ask for me?”
“Oh, she did, many times. She asked your brother to contact you. She wrote letters too, did you not receive them?”
He shook his head in wonder and despair. Despite the itinerant nature of his job, Raman had only one official address and the office clerk had never missed any correspondence that was meant for him.
“Who posted the letters?”
“Amma gave them to your brother; but, I suspect, chinnamma’s hand in this, babu. Your brother would never do anything without first talking to his wife.”
The clock struck nine times and ayah hurried upstairs with a plate of upma and a water jug.
Raman stared at his plate and in a fit of emotion picked it up and drained the contents into the waste basket.
He collected the framed photographs of the family and placed them in their original location on the walls.
He then went upstairs with a photograph of himself with his mother, taken a few days after his graduation.
The incense sticks on the window sill were almost burnt out, but the fragrance still lingered. Ayah had found a framed photo of Ganesha, which she kept against the window bars, behind the small idols. She would not keep the burning wicks before the impromptu altar which Raman had arranged for his mother; she told Raman she feared that his mother may hurt herself accidentally.
His mother was at the window once again, while ayah cleaned up the room. Apparently, his mother ate what the ayah had given her – the plate was empty.
He walked up to his mother and put the photograph in front of her where she could see it clearly. She turned her gaze from the photo and stared at Raman and then back again at the photo. Though he was much older now, the resemblance to the young man in the photo was unmistakable.
After a brief moment, while Raman’s heart fluttered in great expectation, his mother moved her face away from the photo and resumed her vacant stare out of the window.
Ayah watched it all, her work suspended and her mouth slightly parted in surprise.
The call bell sounded and Raman went down to answer the door. It was the courier. Following his request, his colleague had sent his belongings: two wooden trunks and a large travel bag.
Raman began to unpack. Ayah helped him in removing the contents, carefully wiping them clean with a dust rag and then putting them away where he wanted them.
“Did you see how Amma reacted to my photo?”
“Yes, Raman babu. She never looked at anything like that before.”
“I think she just saw the resemblance between the photo and me – that’s all. Then she lost interest; perhaps, her memory did not go beyond that.”
“I saw the glint in her eye, Raman babu; it just came and went.”
Raman played soft music from his cassette player. He set up a small TV in his mother’s room and a reclining chair before it. “She must move from that window,” he told the ayah. “Whether she watched the TV or not, you must make her sit on the easy chair for as long as she can.”
Raman set the TV to the bhakti channel. His mother was very devoted to the gods; not a single day passed without the daily ritual of an early morning prayer.
He ordered for some furniture for the house: cupboards, carpets, cots, mattresses and bed sheets, a writing desk, a sofa set, kitchen utensils, and wash tubs. The house at last began to look like a livable home. A TV in the hall and a telephone connection completed his requirements in restoring his home to the time when he left it three years ago.
Ayah got a room of her own decorated according to her preferences. Raman kept the writing desk in his bedroom and wrote mostly in the nights. This arrangement allowed him to keep a watch on his mother in the night.
He managed to wean his mother off from the dose of medicine in the night also. She had been sleeping restfully in the nights and her days alternated between watching TV and watching through the window. Ayah reported that she attempted to speak when Raman was not around. She said that his mother’s eyes were alive and that the spark in them lasted longer each time.
One day his mother looked at him as he turned some knobs on the TV to adjust the picture brightness. Raman became aware of her and turned slowly round and faced her. She looked at him from head to toe and her face broke out in a smile. Raman’s joy knew no bounds. Before he could react, though, she had once again relapsed into stony silence.
Sometime after that incident, there was a knock on the door and Raman got up to open it. It was his brother. The two bothers looked at each other for while, and then Raman stepped aside from the doorway.
“How is mother?” His elder brother said as he came in. He stopped short when he saw the transformation in the house. The ayah saw him and retreated into the kitchen.
Raman looked at him coldly and said, “What do you care?”
His brother whirled round with the righteous indignation of an elder sibling and opened his mouth to retort.
Raman knew what was coming and forestalled it.
“How are you and the sister-in-law?”
His brother checked himself and replied. “Your sister-in-law is in the family way.”
“Are you planning to come back?”
“I just came to check up on Amma. How is she?”
Raman ignored the question. Instead, he said, “You may return to the house if you want, but only after we leave.”
“Are you taking mother with you?” Did Raman imagine the relief in his brother’s tone?
“And the ayah?” Hope was written all over his face.
She goes where mother goes.”
Raman saw his brother’s face clouded with disappointment.
“I will leave the keys with the neighbors,” he said. “You may return after four weeks.”
“I want to see Amma once,” he said, looking through the stairs to the room above.
Raman remained silent. His brother walked to the stairs and slowly climbed the steps, as though he feared something and wished Raman would stop him any moment.
At the head of the stairs, his brother halted and looked into the room. Raman followed him silently. His mother reclined in the chair before the TV. A tele-serial was in progress and his mother appeared to be engrossed in it.
“Ma,” his brother called, feeling awkward and hesitated to say more.
Mother remained absorbed on the TV screen.
His brother walked towards her and knelt by her side. He called again and once again only silence greeted him. He clutched his mother’s feet with both hands and begged forgiveness. He could have been prostrate before the stone idols on the altar, for all the response he got from her.
Raman stepped inside and tapped on his brother’s shoulder. When he looked up, Raman showed him the door.
His brother stood up in tears and walked out of the room without looking back again.
Raman watched his brother’s back until he went downstairs and disappeared into the street.
He went over to the window and looked at the receding figure of his brother as he rounded the park. His brother flung a forlorn look up at the window before he walked away.
When he turned round, Raman saw his mother switch off the TV and walk to her bed. She lay down and turned her face to the wall.
Raman bent over her and looked at her face; her eyes were close and a single tear ran down her cheek like a scar.
That night he went over the events since he returned home and took stock of the situation.
The next morning Raman called his office and informed them that he was now ready to take up his job again in a couple of weeks. This time he would need accommodation for three, he told the office clerk.