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.