Three walls and a curtain (4)

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A.. B.. C.. D.. E.. Blink.

A.. B.. C.. D.. Blink.

I recite the entire alphabet over and over and wait for the eyes to blink. My voice trembles the first time. I’ve never felt so desperate.

Letter by letter, blink by blink, we form words. We slowly put disparate words in context, trying to form sentences, while comprehension challenges our fortitude.

The systems have shut down. Muscle by muscle, limb by limb, paralysis has taken over his entire body, trapping him in a horrific nightmare. From the neck down, his body has estranged him from himself. He never loses consciousness. He watches himself stop feeling.

Patiently, we let the restlessness slither out of us. When speech fails us, we invent new forms of communication. Each day, I recite the alphabet and through blinks of his eyes, he ‘speaks’ to me in the beeping three-walled intensive care alcove.

Just 48 hours after the accident, he has accepted his condition in its totality. He has gulped down the pain of reality, or rather, the reality of pain, as bitter as it was. The dire predicament came a little too close to his face. Leered a little too long into his eyes. But in the break down moment when it was easier to shift gaze awkwardly and look away, he chose to stare right back.

Over the months, we shared jokes and laughed about misspelled words and misunderstood sentences. He asked about my day and slowly, we talked with such ease about things that speech could never convey. I forgot missing sound.

He spent 58 years carving a life out for himself, bit by bit. It took less than 58 seconds to steer him to an uninvited turn. But even in the worst conditions of his life, he didn’t stop being my father – completely present with me, giving, strong, protective, nurturing, even uplifting.

His will to stick it out superseded the medical textbooks, the depression, the fear and the body. Today, about 3 years and 3 months later, he walks independently by my side, recalling the seven months in the hospital fondly. He has recovered partially but exceptionally from paralysis, after a critical cervical surgery, years of excruciating physiotherapy, medication, innumerable massages, and a lot of resilience. While he still undergoes treatment every day, his unwavering faith and unyielding perseverance are enough to numb the pain and pull us all through to the other side with a grin that yells, “booyeah”.

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*Related posts: Pieces (1), Grey Skies (2), 628 (3)

Travel Telltales 

Travel to me is road trips. Rocky roads and really long drives. A car trunk flooded with luggage, and some more in the rear seat. And by the feet. And on the lap. How it all fit into our little car, I’ll never know. I’ve been traveling for as far back as I can remember. The places I’ve been to are very few; I could count them on my fingers. But I’ve frequented some of them so often in all these years, I know them like the back of my hand. The known voices of familiar people, the recognisable bumps and cracks on the roads, the shopkeepers that know you by name… It is an extraordinary feeling to go somewhere and feel like you’re home. I constantly realise how people in faraway places lead separate lives but have a common existence.

Adventure to me is a forest. A familiar forest that I know the routes to. Yet ever so strange, unknown and enticing. Rugged jeeps navigating through craggy pathways as the dust gently powders your face and clouds your vision. A thudding heart, a camera held firmly in an unsteady hand and utter silence. The thrill of seeing nature through a lens in its wild, unmade, tousled form is unlike any other. With a still body and wide gaping eyes, I’ve learnt patience through a viewfinder. I’m not a great photographer, I must tell you. But growing up around my photographer dad, I’ve never been too far away from a camera.

I’ve always fancied putting on a khaki attire paired with brown boots and a dark green hat, as a way of being one with your surroundings. It’s a subtle part of maintaining the jungle decorum. And off we go in our jeeps, bumping away on weathered roads, the excitement building up. And a sudden halt – squint eyes searching in the dry, desolate expanse. The jungle in all its discreetness uncovers itself in the form of a ravishing beauty – a leopard. It stands there, half-hidden behind a tree trunk with a still, unblinking stare that makes the hair on your neck stand on end as it pierces through the silence. Thrill rides on the shoulders of suddenness. Eyelids flutter and the camera clicks away, taking shots that try to do justice to the breathtaking sight. It doesn’t know that the mind’s eye has already captured and ingrained this spectacle for the rest of time.

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These memories have grown with me, from childhood to adulthood. Experiences need to be remembered, taken care of, and nurtured like a relationship; lest they be long forgotten. They have asked for unremitting love and attention, and I’ve obliged. Each trip has been a journey closer within, while the pleasure excursion proceeds on the outside. I wait to see where the next trip takes me, while I hold on to my true north.

Reading, Writing and Growing Up

My grandmother was a collector. She collected stamps, coins, postcards, letters, souvenirs, photographs, diaries and books. I was not allowed to touch any of that. At the most, she’d let me play with her jar of coins under supervision. But her books were never off limits. They were mine for the taking. She was an ardent reader. I treasure her massive collection of books. It mostly consists of classics, mystery, fantasy, romance, crime thrillers and philosophy. She stacked her books in a large hidden closet that had a full-sized mirror for a door. That mirror was the rabbit-hole I was so desperately ready to tumble down. She bought books from everywhere – from the airport, the bus stop, the railway station stalls, the posh bookstores… She’d even stop to buy a few from the used book-seller on a bicycle and from the roadside bookwallahs. She was a generous reader too; sharing her books with friends and strangers alike. She never left the house without a book in her bag. She was a gynaecologist and between a crazy day-and-night schedule full of patients and surgeries, she would find time to stand in a corner of the OT and open a random page of The Reader’s Digest to read snippets of this and that, shutting out the noise and hustle around her. I know of times when she managed to read a few pages standing in an overcrowded local train in Mumbai; one hand swinging on the rod above and the other, clutching on to her book tightly.

She brought magazines and comics into my life. Every other day, on her way back from the hospital, she would stop and buy some magazines for herself and comic books for me. Tinkle, Champak, Richie Rich, Amar Chitra Katha, Tin Tin, Panchtantra, Shaktimaan, MAD, Chacha Chaudhary, Spiderman, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Akbar and Birbal and Archie Comics filled my childhood with colour and cartoons. I devoured the books, flipping through pages with wild excitement, as I usually got to read them as an incentive for finishing schoolwork early. Characters like Suppandi, Tenali Raman and Jughead really cracked me up. I read of mythology, history, fables, fairy tales and superheroes. I approached different kinds of comedy with big, bright eyes and a crooked smile – satire, caricature, parody, farce, repartee, slapstick, irony. She’d riddle me often, “Who has a brain sharper than a needle…” I’d cut her off with a silly grin, “… and faster than a super-computer, of course it’s Chacha Chaudhary!”

Seeing her sitting on the floor reading a book, with legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles and her back resting in the cozy curve of the couch in the living room was the most familiar and common sight in my house. As her eyes got weary with age and her patience to read the thick novels that she once enjoyed faded, she slowly made a shift to lighter, comic or inspirational literature – short stories, anecdotes, novellas, magazines, poetry. But she never stopped reading.

I don’t remember the instance when my love for books first developed or when my urge to tell a story took form on a paper but as far back as I can recall, I’ve been the happiest when reading or writing. In early school years, the only times I felt genuinely proud, with a sense of accomplishment was when I got an A grade on an English essay or when my poem was published in the school newsletter or when I won a medal for recitation. The only tests I was always gladly prepared for were reading comprehensions, spelling bees, dictation and essay writing. My favourite spot in the entire school was the corner table by the window in the library where I would sneak to, every chance I got. I always carried a book under my arm and often read during classes too. Especially math classes. A teacher once wrote a remark in my annual evaluation report card that said that I had potential and I could do wonders, if only I’d show as much interest in reading textbooks as I did in novels and other books I read for pleasure. I took that as a compliment and went around showing everyone what a wonderful note I got that year.

The only person who was as happy about that remark as I was was my grandmother. When my parents weren’t around, she would have to sign school notes as my guardian. I saw the pride in her smile as she signed that particular report. She gave me a new book that day.

Little did I know then that I’ll read and write for a living. I’ve often wondered if this is what I was really meant to do in life. If this was my calling. Stressful deadlines and lack of inspiration often push my buttons. There were times when other things caught my fancy and I was tempted to take up more lucrative opportunities instead of the low-paying writing jobs that came my way. I did find creative satisfaction in most of the work that I did, but sometimes, that wasn’t enough to go on. Then I’d look at my decked up bookshelf and find immense pleasure in the mere sight of books. The pattern of how everything I ever did through these years led me to books and writing has left a clear trace that makes all the sense in the world. It is a part of me that is intact, solid and unwavering. That is who I am, and this is what I know. Perhaps, this is all I know. And that, it seems, will be enough.

Sometimes, all you need is that proud signature on your report card to keep you going. All you need is a guardian.

628 (3)

“It’s okay. It is. Okay?”

Peering behind curtains, searching for a face. I have 5 minutes. Tick tock tick tock. A lungful of intoxicating smell.

I’ve known this face for longer than I can remember. He’s half asleep. I could just stand here, forever. I touch his shoulder, not knowing if he would respond to it. If he would feel it. He opens his eyes and turns to me. A chill runs down the spine like a sharp, cleaving sword.

I see a hint of a smile. The quiet face seems relieved of something. His eyes are lit up like little lamps in the night. He says that I shouldn’t have gone through the trouble. That he was okay. Then, it all fades to the background.. The foggy mask, the beeping monitors, the smell of fresh blood. I mumble a few words only he can understand.

I slowly pull myself away, walking back to the familiar faces; taking the light of his eyes with me. I will be back, each day. Every day.

The tense atmosphere outside seeps into the skin, like water into a cracked wall. Someone waits for me. We exchange a look, and we weep in silent knowing. The tears sting, like dripping acid. Sitting there, frozen, like timeless statues, we stare at the waves, thrashing back and forth. Back and forth.

It is a night of disbelief and ruthless shivers. Dark and inescapable.

*Related posts: Pieces (1), Grey Skies (2), Three walls and a curtain (4)

Grey Skies (2)

It is a wet, grey evening draining itself into darkness. I get a call. There has been an accident. I sit there. Then I pack.

It is a misty, early morning in Mumbai. As I wipe the fog off my window, I wait to arrive at my stop, unaware of how often and for how long would I be frequenting this journey.

It is the longest walk of my life. The stairs relentlessly show a way up. Visitors, security, nurses, doctors, patients, wheelchairs, stretchers briskly move about. I feel cold.

Aah a familiar face. Another. And yet another. They hustle me inside those large doors that read ICU. I walk. 628. I stare at faces that stare back at me with blank eyes.

This is it. 628 they had said.

*Related posts: Pieces (1), 628 (3), Three walls and a curtain (4)

Pieces (1)

I haven’t been able to write because I do not fully comprehend what I attempt to say. During a time when I hold on to things fragile and distant, I wonder if something has changed. Something that has escaped from my being.

As fragmented as the thought is, I write for I know that the pieces ought to fall into place with time. I may not know the what and why of it, but I know this. When the depth of life reaches out to me again, I will not stand back to think. I will embrace it, dive into it and while drown I might, I will know that I wanted it and I chose it. And that would be my happily ever after.

I have nothing more to say. Until I find another piece to the whole…

*Related posts – Grey Skies (2), 628 (3), Three walls and a curtain (4)