I stretched my hands and stood upright, wiped the beads of sweat as my skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, I continued digging again – my passage to freedom.
I along with my friends had started digging at dawn. As audacious as my plan was, we all were brimming with excitement and nervousness in equal proportions. It had taken us hours to dig out a small heap of mud and create an opening still not big enough for a man to pass through. I looked up and squinted at the beams of harsh sunlight coming in from the gaps of the bombed-out roof of the factory. I signaled at everybody to carry on. And though the odds were against us, we persevered.
1960, East Germany
The room filled with the foot-tapping music of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ as I got myself a cup of coffee and reached the window. My humble cottage overlooked the river Spree and it was a beautiful sight to wake up to every morning.
“Wake up Peter,” I shouted out looking across the bedroom towards my best friend, who was sleeping as if he had no worries in the world.
I smiled. We were the eternal optimists. I was often both amused and disconcerted by this. How could hope spring unabated, considering the times we were born into?
Both me and Peter were born in the times of rife and destruction, in a country which was still bruised. The Second World War was long over, but the splinters still hung in post-war Germany, constantly squashing the German spirit apart. We had lost our parents to the war and had spent our childhood in orphanages. We had witnessed the bombings, the billeted soldiers, the hunger, the destruction that the war brought upon us.
Post-war Germany was hounded up like wolves by the winning countries. The Allied powers had their stranglehold in the western part while the eastern part where we lived, was run by the dictatorial rule of the German Democratic Republic or ‘bloody GDR’ as we usually referred to it with gruff disdain.
But, we lived through it all. Today we were twenty-five-year-olds with dreams both for us and for our country.
As I sat at the window, lost in a reverie of sorts, Peter called out in his usual sing-song voice, “Good morning Henry, why didn’t you wake me up sooner kamerad*?”
“Du faule Socke, du!* I did. But, someone likes to sleep in. We ought to hurry. We have to open the book store too. It is eight already.” Quickly I switched off the radio set which was still playing the song by this new American sensation, Elvis Presley.
“Presley will have to wait. We have our own Jailhouses to rock.” Peter winked.
We reached the bookstore and started with our everyday drill. We owned ‘Bloomstain’s bookstores’ in East Germany. Though we didn’t earn a lot, it kept us going.
As I sat at the reception of the bookstore as usual, poring over a book, she entered. The scent of her perfume transported me to lavender fields, while I gaped at her like a fool.
“Herr *…,” she uttered.
“Henry…Henry Schmidt,” I introduced myself.
“Uhh, Herr* Schmidt, do you have the book ‘Farewell to Arms’ by Ernest Hemingway?” she asked.
My head jiggled up and down in excitement and I dashed through the reception to get the book. This was one of my favourite books. Like a child who could not contain his enthusiasm, I blabbered about the book and the author. Her interest was piqued.
From ‘Farewell to Arms’ our conversation moved on to other books and time flew. Her name was Angela and she was from an upper class East German family. I did not want the conversation to end, but we were soon interrupted by another customer. As she stepped out of the bookstore smiling, her eyes glistened like the Blue flower. I was smitten.
She became a regular visitor at the book shop from then on and I couldn’t be happier. As she browsed through the books, flipping pages, I would shoot furtive glances at her, all the while pretending to be engrossed in my work. At times our eyes would meet and both of us would look away blushing like two dewy-eyed teenagers.
And then on a dark and cloudy day, my world shone like that rainbow which appears when one least expects it. She entered the book shop and as always my heart skipped a beat. She spent the better part of an hour sifting through the racks of books. And as she was about to leave, it started pouring. She frowned.
“Fraulin* Angela, can I help you with something?”I could not resist asking her.
“I have an important commitment. I need to reach home. And the way it is raining, I fear I won’t be able to make it.” She pulled back a couple of stray hair that fell on her forehead and looked out the window.
Just then a deafening noise of thunder caught us off guard. She shuddered.
I immediately pulled out my umbrella and she looked at me bemused. I could sense her fear of walking home in such menacing weather.
“I can come along with you and walk you home. It is quite dark outside.”
Underneath a big yellow umbrella, we sauntered through the lanes. None of us said a word but how I wished that we could walk like this forever. Soon enough we arrived at a big blue mansion.
“Thank you, Henry,” she said.
“I will see you tomorrow.” The words escaped my mouth and I hesitated for a moment.
“Yes, you will”. She blushed.
And at that moment, as we stood under a yellow umbrella with rain splattering around us, I knew that we were both in love.
The coming days were the most exciting days of my life. It was as if my life ebbed and flowed ever so gently and I was in a state of trance. Yes, being in love can intoxicate you, they say. It can lull you into rapture and you feel that until now you were just surviving. You have begun to live only now.
Angela soon became the axis around which my life revolved. We met almost every day. Huddled together at the banks of the river Spree, we would gaze at the stars while weaving the dreams of our future.
Life did not look so bleak now.
Peter somehow never warmed up to her. He often told me to rein in and not reach for the stars.
“You give yourself to people too soon,” he would often say grinning away in typical Peter fashion.
But, she was my Perle* and I was her Barchen*.
Little did we know that in a few days, our world would come crashing down around us.
13th August 1961
I woke up and it felt like just another day. But, that’s the thing about fiendish days, they seem mundane and then hold you by your neck and you are left grappling for air.
“Henry, the bastards have built a wall. They have cut Germany into two. They did it all in the dead of the night. No one had an inkling of their devious plans. Bloody GDR… ” Peter fumed with anger while I stared at him in disbelief.
“This seems like the GDR government’s last-ditch effort to isolate the people of East Germany,” he cursed under his breath.
And then the realization dawned on me, leaving me numb. I was in West Germany and my home was in the East. A wall now stood between me and my home. Angela, my precious Perle* was in the East too.
As fate would have it, both Peter and I had come to the West to attend a Jazz festival and stayed back for the weekend. How were we supposed to know that a wall was about to be thrust on us imprisoning us and taking us away from home?
The next few months were a blur for me and Peter. We were stranded in the West and though it was a good place to be, it wasn’t home.
At nights, I would sit and stare at the sky spread out in varied shades of blue, sans any man-made borders. I missed Angela and I missed home.
The Berlin Wall had wreaked havoc in the lives of everyone. Families were separated and people were stranded. A pall of despair loomed large as people struggled to come to terms with the ‘wall’.
Peter had become stoic and did not let his emotions get the better of him. But, I knew that under the tough exterior he pretended to display, he too was a broken man.
It was at this juncture that I decided to do something preposterous. Peter called my idea, ‘blod’*. But, my yearning to be home and to see Angela dissipated all that one could fear. Yes, I planned to dig a tunnel from West Germany to the East.
“Digging a tunnel isn’t as easy as you think it is Henry,” Peter’s disgruntled tone wasn’t encouraging at all.
“I do realize that Peter, but I want to go home. I want to go to…”
Peter looked away.
“You should spread a word amongst your trusted group of friends here. I know you have friends on this side,” I reassured him making an effort to calm his nerves.
The first good thing that happened was, soon we had three trusted tunnellers who were ready to help us in our daunting mission. We skimmed through maps, trying to chalk out a route for our tunnel. After months of thorough planning, we were ready with a solid plan. Our tunneller friends helped us get tools from a cemetery. Now we had rakes, hammers, and wheelbarrows.
After hunting for many days, we found an abandoned, war-ravaged factory and planned to start from here. With much trepidation, we began digging. We were supposed to dig our way through this tunnel and reach the basement of a friend’s cottage in the East. I had met this friend during one of the peasant movements and knew that he was dead against the GDR government’s regime.
In the coming days, the digging continued. It was tough but we were relentless. As we nursed our blisters, Peter would often shout out, “Sind wir verrückt”.
But, there was no turning back now. Peter knew that I wanted to be with Angela and that was what kept me going. He did not say anything though. He was a good friend.
I had already written a letter to Angela and told her about our plans. She was ecstatic.
Finally, the day arrived when we were to crawl through the 80 meters long tunnel that we had clandestinely dug. The trickiest part was when we would be under the Eastern part, close to the cottage. If caught, the Stasi* would not spare us. It was a known fact that Stasi had thousands of informants all around East Germany. They were constantly on a lookout for miscreants and were notorious for being ruthless. But, we had taken the plunge.
The group screamed, ‘Die Freiheit’ and we went in.
Present Day (East Germany)
The end was visible. I had crawled my way through the underground tunnel, all the while in imminent danger of being caught. Just then I heard muffled sounds coming from above. On a whim, I looked back. Peter, who was just a step behind looked at me, white with fear. Was it the Stasi? Was our end near? I had already hacked my way up to the cottage by now. This was the last lap and I could not give up- not now. Right outside the window of the living room, I saw a group of armed men, carrying machine guns. I froze.
And then I saw her. She stood with one of the armed men, pointing towards the cottage.
The next few minutes went in a daze. Peter came up and pushed me back. He looked at her and cursed, “That bitch, she ratted us out to the Stasi.”
I turned around and ran as tears welled up clouding my vision.
The men barged in.
Peter was shot.
I ran back and crawled inside the tunnel. I kept going.
I had escaped.
But, what was left of me?
I had lost my love, my home, and my best friend. Why did she betray me? I would never know.
A frail wrinkled woman sat in front of a TV screen. An exuberant reporter was talking animatedly, “Today marks thirty years of the fall of Berlin Wall or ‘The Wall of Shame’ as it came to be known as. It was a historical day indeed that paved the way for the unification of Germany.”
Just then a peppy teenager barged in the room.
“Oma*, what was it like? You know when the Berlin Wall was built?”
The woman looked listlessly at a lone corner and everything came back rushing in like a giant waterfall. Those memories were still etched in the crevices of her mind.
Everything flashed through her mind like a kaleidoscope- On that bright sunny day, how she was taken in by the Stasi. They asked for the location of the tunnel. She cried. She denied. They promised her that if she told them the location of the tunnel, they would not touch Henry.
So many times she had replayed those moments in her mind. So many times she wondered if she could have done things differently.
He was safe. She never heard from him. But, she knew.
And even after so many years, that’s what mattered to her.
The love of her life, her Barchen* did not die.
The reporter still screamed through the TV and a picture flashed in front of her eyes. The teenager clapped with excitement, “Oma*, see they are showing the Berlin Wall.”
The old woman stared at the picture as tears trickled down her wrinkled cheeks.
“If only they had not built a wall.” She cried.
Author’s Note: The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by East German soldiers, by stringing barbed wires and making concrete barricades. It was built in the dead of the night, ideologically and physically cutting off West Berlin from East Germany. On the morning of August 13, 1961 people woke up and were terrified to find themselves on one side of the wall. Over the years, multiple attempts were made to cross the border and a number of tunnels were dug on both sides.
The Sainik Vihar Senior Citizen Home stood tall in its stately blue and white visage. A grand garden that bloomed with multitudes of flowers was a stark contrast to the road outside the Home. Just outside the Home, on a corner, one could see a pile of garbage. The polluted Delhi air pervaded the surroundings, while a lone cow sprawled in the middle of the road.
The Senior Citizen Home housed a number of elderly residents, all of whom were either defense veterans or families of defense personnel.
Air Commodore Dhillon sat in the garden, on a folding chair sniffing cigar while, three others, all septuagenarians sipped tea. There was Mrs. Batra, a widow whose husband, a retired Brigadier, had passed away five years ago. Then there were Colonel Menon and Mrs. Menon, an old army couple who chose to stay at the Home after retirement.
The morning hour discussion was in full swing.
“Bloody, these politicians are leeches. Again some MLAs turned hostile and are hiding their asses in a hotel. No patriotism left, I tell you. In the 1971 war, when I flew the Gnat…”, Air Commodore Dhillon exclaimed.
“Dhillon, we know the story by heart…Nonsense”, Mrs. Batra cut him short and he glared at her cursing under his breath.
Mrs. Batra was the only one who had the ‘balls’ (as per Colonel Menon) to call out to Dhillon, who had quite an intimidating persona. Six feet tall, with mustaches that seemed to almost merge with his turbaned head, he was a talker.
“Mrs. Batra, so any new pictures of your grandson?” Commodore Dhillon uttered with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“Yes, my son sent me a new picture yesterday night. Not everyone is as lucky as you Dhillon. Some of us see these kids grow only in pictures. You fly out tomorrow, right?”
Two months later
Coronavirus had spread its tentacles over the world and the home appeared lonelier than ever. Residents were asked not to gather in groups. The virus posed a greater threat to oldies like them. The gardens lay empty and food was sent to the respective rooms. Gloom hung over the home like an overcast cloud.
“Wash your hands…for twenty seconds, like this”, Colonel Menon was busy teaching his wife.
Mrs. Batra sat in her room fiddling with the remote. She tried hard to focus on her favourite TV serial, but her mind wandered elsewhere. She picked up her phone and called Mrs. Menon.
“Hello, yes, all good. This Corona has pushed us to our rooms, alone- what do they say –social distancing, self-isolation. Aren’t we already isolated and distanced from our families.” She stopped and sighed.
“You don’t worry. We are here only. Menon, who cannot boil a cup of water, is teaching me how to wash my hands”, Mrs. Menon giggled.
“Did Dhillon call?” Mrs. Batra asked trying to sound all casual.
“No, Menon is worried too. Commodore Dhillon is in Italy no? It is the worst hit. No calls from him. We will ask the manager for his son’s phone number.”
Mrs. Batra stared at the television screen again. She suddenly felt fear grip her and without any foreboding, she broke into tears. It had been days since she had heard from her son. He was avoiding her. She was wise enough to know why. Immediately Dhillon’s words rang through her ears, “Mrs. Batra, stop groveling to your son. He does not want you- plain and simple. Bloody, he is a joker. Let him go to hell. Get a hobby, live your life”.
On a whim, Mrs. Batra stood up and opened up the green coloured steel almirah. It lay open with a shattering sound. There at one corner, she saw her crochet needles stuffed beneath some clothes. Hesitantly, she pulled them.
A month had passed and the situation had turned grimmer. The government had imposed a twenty-one-day lockdown and flights had been suspended.
The Home had fewer people now. Many were taken to their houses because of the pandemic. But, then there were some who were still there. There was a scuffle when the monthly medicine supply box arrived. Meals had turned leaner and loneliness had now become unbearable.
“Any news from Dhillon?” Mrs. Batra asked Colonel Menon.
“No, I tried asking his son’s number. But, the manager said he was not reachable.”
Three months later
The lockdown was lifted. The virus was restrained to a great extent. Flights had resumed. Slowly but steadily, residents of the Home looked for some semblance of normalcy. The Gulmohar tree in the garden was now bursting with red blooms heralding the arrival of spring.
The morning tea sessions resumed. Fear that had engulfed the residents, jerking them off like a bad case of arthritis, was dispelling now. They had survived this.
But, Mrs. Batra was miserable. Even in the company of her mates, she felt alone.
It was a beautiful morning. Mrs. Menon was busy finishing Sudoku, a habit she developed while she was cooped up in her room for a month. Colonel Menon pored over the newspaper. Mrs. Batra was engrossed making a beautiful crochet table mat, her fingers nimbly weaving magic. Just then a car stopped at the front gate.
“Bloody hell! Good morning Jokers”!
Commodore Dhillon stood in front of them – his mustache even curvier than usual.
Mrs. Batra could not contain her joy.
“Dhillon, where were you? No news. We were scared. We couldn’t reach you.”
“I came here fifteen days back. But, the jokers put me in quarantine. I am not scared of this Corona. Even if I had it, I would have bloody well defeated it. I am a fighter you see. Not like you Menon, look at your paunch- about to touch your toes. In 1971, when I flew the Gnat…”
The jingling sound of bells reverberated in the twilight sky and steered the silence of her heart. She sat on the banks of the river Ganga and stared listlessly towards the rippling waters of the sacred river. Unlike the other ghats*, this one was not thronging with devotees and a somber serenity hung in the air.
Sakshi was not coming to Varanasi for the first time. But, today it felt alien and she somehow missed the warmth which she had hitherto experienced. Gradually, as the seemingly intermittent echoes of the aarti* reached its culmination, it became eerily quiet.
Sakshi looked around. How long had it been since she had been sitting here? She had lost count of time. It seemed like an eternity.
Just then she heard faint footsteps. She turned back and their eyes met. The stranger looked at her and grinned sheepishly.
“Hey, sorry if I startled you. I was not expecting anyone at this hour. Can I sit here, if you don’t mind?” the stranger chimed.
Sakshi smiled which took a greater effort than she had anticipated.
“Yes, you can sit here,” she found herself saying nevertheless.
“I am Mahima,” the woman who had just sauntered in, said beaming away.
“I am Sakshi.”
“So, what brings you here at this unearthly hour? I mean what brings you to Varanasi?” Mahima quipped.
Sakshi took a deep breath and contemplated on what to tell this unexpected companion. She looked at her clearly for the first time. Mahima was a woman in her late twenties. Dressed in a pale red salwar kameez, she seemed to have an ascetic look. Maybe she was one of those breed of individuals who are on a quest for life and are out there soul-searching. She had an unmistakable glint in her eyes and if you looked hard they seemed to be staring in the distant sky.
“Oh, nothing much. Just a spiritual escape I would say,” Sakshi exclaimed.
“Really, sounds interesting. Looks like we both are kind of on the same boat,” Mahima said animatedly.
Sakshi was intrigued. She had been on these ghats so many times, but all she saw were either devotees looking to cleanse their sins in the holy waters of the mighty Ganga or firangs* who were blowing away their days in the drowsy stupor of ganja*. Then of course, there were ghats like the Manikarnika, where pyres were lit and the dead ones were turned to ashes. Those made for the most heart-rending spectacles and when she witnessed it for the first time, tears trickled down her cheeks like hot embers and she was transported to another world.
And here was this woman who seemed to be having a blithe disregard to the grim surroundings. Varanasi was intense and morbid at the same time. What could have brought her here, she wondered!
“Hey, I hope I did not disrupt your solitary sojourn?”Mahima looked at her, bringing Sakshi back from her reverie.
“No not really. I guess I have brooded alone enough for today. It would be good to have some company for a change,” she managed to blurt out.
As if on a cue, Mahima sprawled next to her on the stairs that led to the banks of the river. They sat there without saying a word savouring the stillness that hung in the air like a thick veil of fog.
“So, what do you do Sakshi?”
Sakshi stretched her legs. God, she felt spent.
“Well, I am an academician. I teach History to college students. Currently, I am pursuing a doctorate.”
“Wonderful. So, any interesting fact about this place, Miss Historian that you could share with me,” Mahima stared at her piqued with interest.
“One of the facts that come to my mind is that Tulsidas wrote Ramcharitmanas* sitting on these ghats.”
“Is it? I did not know that. Ramayan has always fascinated me. It is an amalgamation of possibly everything- valour, love, separation, suffering, righteousness. There is so much to learn from the epic. And the most mind-numbing thing is that it is still relevant in this era. It has answers to all our questions, you know,” Mahima uttered almost breathlessly.
“Yes. I agree. It is a path-breaking scripture and I have enjoyed reading it thoroughly. In fact, I have written papers on many aspects of Ramayana. But, to say that it is relevant today, I am not sure. There are so many woes that wreck us today and life is much more complicated now. It is like a long ordeal…”
Sakshi paused and unwittingly closed her eyes.
Mahima looked puzzled and cleared her throat.
The river flowed beneath them, glistening under the moonlit sky. A streak of lightning almost jolted them. Sakshi looked at her companion with doleful eyes.
“I am devastated. My marriage is on the rocks. It is going to be over soon. I love him…but…”
Sakshi went on, “I loved my husband. We were so good together. But, then everything changed one fine day. He was offered a work opportunity abroad. He wanted me to come along with him leaving my work and life here. I did not want to go. We had constant fights and we were bitter and no more the happy couple we used to be. There was a rift in our relationship. We are separated now. Do you have a solution for my predicament in your Ramayana?” she grinned with a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
Mahima smiled. “Well to start with, it is not my Ramayana or yours; it is for all those who want to reap benefits out of it. And to answer your question, I think you can draw parallels from Ram and Sita’s life and reassess your own life.”
Sakshi was visibly miffed. “Those times were different and Ram and Sita set such unrealistic ideals especially for women. Why would a woman join her husband when he is ousted out of his kingdom to lead an exiled and arduous life in the forest?”
“Why couldn’t she accompany him? She loved him deeply. And it was her choice. Why are you away from your husband, Sakshi? Well, it is your choice.”
Sakshi was stunned.
Mahima continued with gusto, “Tell me something, do you love him. Hmm…why am I even asking you such a warped up question? Of course, you do. Why on earth would you be sitting here, all alone, pining for him?”
Sakshi was dumbfounded.
“Ram and Sita’s story was fraught with enough thorns, Sakshi. And don’t you think Sita doubted Ram’s love for her when he paid heed to hearsay and she was sent away? But, you have to make a choice. At times the choice may be going with your husband on vanvaas* because you love him while at other times the choice may make you abandon everything and throw yourself in the chasms of the earth so as to uphold your dignity.”
Sakshi was listening to Mahima with rapt attention.
“So, what should I do?”she asked as her voice quivered with sobs.
Mahima smiled and held her hand.
“You will have to take the call Sakshi. It is about your choice. Nobody can make that decision for you.”
Sakshi broke down. She kept her head in her lap and bawled like a baby. The first rays of the sun emanated on the ghats and the soft murmurs of priests and tourists could be heard from a distance.
Sakshi stood up with a jerk and realized that she was a huge mess.
Mahima was nowhere to be seen.
Confounded and lost, she looked around. Just then a saint walked towards the ghat, muttering something. It must be time for the morning aarti, Sakshi suddenly realized.
“Baba, did you see a woman walk past the banks? She was with me a little while ago. She was here and now she isn’t,” Sakshi mumbled.
“Beta, you were here the whole night? You arrived on an auspicious day. It is Sita Navami* today and the locals believe that mata Sita herself comes down on the banks of the river Ganga where Tulsidasa wrote the Ramcharitmanas,” the saint replied smiling mysteriously.
Sakshi was overwhelmed with emotions. She did not know who she was. But, she knew what she had to do.
Just then, the morning aarti began on the ghat. Sakshi unwittingly trotted towards the river Ganga. The chants of the mantras and the lights of the diyas* filled her with warmth and hope.
The train comes to a screechy halt and I open my eyes with an inexplicable sense of urgency. The sight that beholds me is not a very pleasant one. But, strangely I feel calm and the stifling voices in my head no longer play havoc and do not seem to unnerve me. The train compartment looks mundane and the buzzing of the old ceiling fan is just one of the sounds that fall on my wrinkled ears.
The incessant noises of the tea sellers which invariably ebb and flow, the clamour of people buzzing like bees on the shoddy platform- the whole kaleidoscope lays bare to me in all its glory. Passengers are groping the dark corners under the seating area so as to ensure that their luggage is safe and sound. I breathe heartily but suddenly find myself devoid of any feeling. It is as if an old duster has rubbed off all the carvings on my mind.
It is not comforting at all. And just then a family prances near my seat. The man seems to be in his thirties. The woman who is most likely his wife, and is probably a few years younger, looks around dressed in a yellow coloured salwar kameez. Then there is a toddler who is extremely charged up at the sight and his animated expression catches my fancy all at once.
Images blur- Distant, disarrayed, dim.
Is it a younger me who is standing in front of my eyes? And wait, is this Sujata? How elegant she looks in her favourite kalamkari salwar kameez! And there he is- Kunal, my son. He is wearing that blue t-shirt with teddy bears, which he wore on his third birthday.
Memories are nothing but frozen moments in the crevices of our minds. I find myself smiling and the toddler flashes a toothy smile.
The train slowly stretches away from the station and I stare at the trees running past me and time fleeting away flying on a ‘winged chariot’. Most people would devour this sight heartily, but not me. I detest change. I have lived all my life in a small sleepy town and led a fairly uniform life. I lived a structured life of a government employee with my days galloping amidst the rigours of the ‘nine to five’ grind.
My reverie is just then broken by the family I had just observed. The man who a little while ago reminded me of my younger self, asks, “Uncle, you are also going to Dehradun?”
“Yes I am travelling to Dehradun as well. My wife is in Dehradun. I am going to meet her”.
The man nods flashing an amiable smile.
I stare out of the window and suddenly feel chilly. Cold winds lash my face and I can sense that my nose is all red by now. I close the window and at once it is eerily quiet. Night has fallen.
The family next to me is settled. The father is walking around bouncing the toddler gently in his arms. The mother who looks tired is about to fall asleep. I inadvertently think about Kunal, my son. I think hard but I fail to picture myself putting my boy to sleep. A sense of despondency coupled with guilt envelopes me. It was Sujata. Yes, it was Sujata who brought up my boy. My mind blacks out just then and I feel disoriented.
I think a few minutes pass- or is it hours? Who knows? But, the storm has subsided. My seventy year old self is still sitting perched next to the window, on a train to Dehradun on a damp wintry night.
Crimson sun rays peep stealthily and wake me up. They form a shadow which looks like a gallimaufry of varied hues in the distant corner of the compartment. “Uncle, would you like some tea?” the young man, the toddler’s father enquires politely. “I will take one for me when the next chaiwalla comes. Thank you beta.” I am touched by the young man’s good manners.
Soon I am slurping a hot cup of tea in a kulhad. But, my mind is racing. It doesn’t stop for a second. Do I like tea or coffee? As queer as it may sound, I find myself asking the question. I close my eyes which are probably wearied down by fatigue. The train has come to a loud halt yet again. I adjust myself and spread the blanket on my legs which are now cold to the bones. As I sit guarding myself against the chill, new passengers arrive. Soon enough I find myself in the presence of two men who perch themselves next to me.
Both of these men appear to be in their sixties. Their enthusiasm is infectious. My spirits soar as I hear their conversations. Curiosity gets the better of me and I ask one of them, “Hello. Where are you travelling to? I am…well I am going to…Dehradun.”
“Hello sir. Good good. We are going to Dehradun as well for our school reunion, St. Joseph’s Academy. Fifty years you see. I am Vinod and this is my friend Deepak”. I nod and smile. Sujata also studied in St. Joseph’s.
“So, is it not a family thing like most reunions are?” I ask.
This time Deepak answers, “It is, it is. But, you see it is just us. Our wives are deceased and children are busy in their own lives. We have known each other for decades. And though, health is an issue quite often, we make it a point to go for a trip every year, living life to the fullest.”
I look at him agape. The train plods on and the trees sprint past me as if escaping their roots. I meander through the labyrinths of my mind, afraid of an unknown fear. I pull down the window shutter with a jerk.
Time elapses. It is indeed fickle and doesn’t really care to stop for anyone. Live life to the fullest…
The words echo through the farthest corners of my mind. Suddenly I am livid. Just then the toddler stumbles towards me and holds my finger. I am stunned. His cherubic face does something to me. I can sense myself softening.
All around me there are conversations flowing. The husband, his wife, the toddler, the two friends smiling, breathing in the present. Their faces seem to disappear and I see snippets of my life projected as if on a celluloid.
How long before I reach my destination, I wonder. Sleep eludes me most of the time. Then there are times when it catches hold of me like a cold- sudden and all consuming.
“Uncle, uncle. Please wake up. We have reached”.
The words fall like hot embers in my ears and I wake up with a start.
“We have reached? Is it …”
“Yes, Dehradun. We have reached Dehradun uncle. Sorry, to wake you up but it is the last stop.”
I stand up with some effort and am transfixed.
“Your luggage?” Vinod, my fellow traveler questions.
I look around. Where is my luggage? Did I even carry a suitcase or something of that sort? My head throbs and I walk slowly towards the exit.
Dehradun station brings back vivid memories. Next to me I see my fellow travelers, the two men, who are here for their reunion and to make the best out of life. Then, there is the family of three. The toddler is throwing a tantrum now and his parents are busy humouring him. The journey has come to a bitter sweet end. The travelers are walking down their respective paths. I cannot help but feel a part of me walking away with them. And at that moment I find myself all alone on the platform. I am just an old drooping man standing on a deserted platform.
Turning around instantly, I run.
I board an auto from the booth. Thankfully, I have enough money in my wallet. As I reach my destination, I turn around and look at the house. It stands there in a dilapidated state but the cream coloured look and the tall gates still remind me of the days spent there. Isn’t it strange as to how a house can envelope the memories of a life spent, as if it is a chronicle of one’s past. Slowly I move towards the main door. Sujata must be waiting for me. Kunal must be away at college.
The door opens as soon as I ring the bell. I find myself face to face with my son Kunal. He looks so much like his mother. He has the same hazel eyes.
“Papa!”He hugs me tight and I can feel his eyes making my shirt wet.
“There you are. I was worried sick. How did you reach here? You left your phone too. Did you take a flight?” He asks an array of questions.
“I travelled by train, like always. Where is Sujata?”
Kunal’s face suddenly turns grim. He holds my hand and makes me sit on the white garden chair in the verandah.
I look at him intently. Something is awry, I feel.
“Papa, you cannot just walk away whenever you like”, he says.
I try to utter something but I fail to blurt out the right words.
“I know how hard it has been for you to accept this. But, you have to papa. Today, I came back from work and found you gone. I have been looking for you all over. Then it just struck me that may be you were here looking for mom. You were talking about her the day before you left. And I immediately took a flight to Dehradun.”
I look at him befuddled.
“Where is Sujata?” I ask him.
“Mom passed away two years ago. I know how mom’s death took a toll on you. And then this happened. I have been researching a lot papa. There is a place in Bangalore. It is a community, a village where people like you stay together. You can move about freely leading a normal life. I can shift to Bangalore too. You will like it there.”
I am listening to him but I am still staring at the house, our house. Suddenly, I see the family I met on the train, sitting in the garden. The toddler is squealing with joy. And then it is us- Sujata, me and Kunal. I look happy.
“Papa, are you alright?”
I am looking at him again. My mind is all wobbly.
“Did you hear what I just said?” As he says this, he breaks down and puts his head in my lap.
We have never been too close. There has always been a thin line between us and no one really made an attempt to cross it. We had Sujata. But, now in this moment as I see my boy bawling, I feel aghast. Unknowingly, I hold his hand and slowly wipe his tears. This is not something I have done before.
He merely stares at me teary eyed.
“Papa, I need you. You cannot just give up. You can still live your life to the fullest.”
His words ring in my ears unabated as if on a repeat mode. Did I hear these words before?
Live your life to the fullest.
Inadvertently I nod.
“I love you papa. And promise me, no more taking off and embarking on a train journey.”
The clouds of confusion which have become a part of my skin now, clear for a minute. I can think now. This strange journey began with an old man grappling with Alzheimer’s. But, it is culminating today with ‘hope’.
It has unwittingly given me, a seventy year old man, an Alzheimer’s patient a new lease of life.
Each day would be a new day, but I will live it to the fullest.
My journey has just begun.
Author’s Note: This is a piece of fiction. But, it is distressing to know that in India, more than four million people are estimated to be suffering from Alzeimer’s and other forms of Dementia. Sadly many cases go undetected owing to lack of awareness.