Wednesday, November 18, 2015

An Unsuitable Heart

One of the good things about having your short story rejected , is that you can promptly put it on your blog instead of having it disappear in the caverns of TOI , only to appear on , say, page 157 of an anthology, months later. 

Yes, I participated in the Times of India #WriteIndia Campaign, where well known authors give a passage and you weave a short story around it, using it anywhere in your story.  This time the author was Ashwin Sanghi and the passage he gave was :

"I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. "Ten, nine, eight, seven..."

My story , completing a hat-trick of rejects , below. 

An Unsuitable Heart

I am 85.  I was never like this.  Weak, dependent, bedridden  and  full of doubt.   Scenes from the past often stream across the mind’s eye,   and sometimes I can’t believe myself, and what I have been through.   And yes, more so, what I have put others through. 

A great liberal arts education, in the heart of what was,  and  still is, the cultural capital of the state;  college and the associated popularity, followed by a few acclaimed publications of stories in well known magazines, and I was set.   But my parents had other ideas, and I was slowly and inextricably drawn into a world where pucca futures were important than dreamy presents,   and what followed, was   a resigned agreement and capitulation to a parental wish, and marriage. 

She was everything a person would have wanted.  Smart, friendly, loyal, respectful of elders, responsible, dedicated, and  I  enjoyed  attending with her, various functions to which we were invited,  and lapped up the attention.  Well educated , in a sort of single-minded way,  she capably handled a  high school teacher’s career  with her house role , and before long I had two sons,  whose childhood  remains etched in my memory.   I did well in my literary pursuits, got invited to seminars and presided over discussions, and was honored by an adjunct professorship at the University  in another city,  Mumbai. 

It is not easy uprooting everyone’s careers and education, and it was decided that I would live in Mumbai, while my wife and kids continued, well set in Pune. Our respective parents were by then  old, and it would be nice for them to have one of us there.   

Mobility is not easy in this country, and those were old conservative days.

Mumbai.  Or Bombay, as it was called then. They call it the city of dreams, but sometimes dreams  become your life, and sometimes, you start believing in what you wrote, as fiction. 

That’s where , and when, I met  V. 

 Attractive, very articulate,  well read, stimulating,  free-wheeling,  with an amazing breadth of mind, we were like soul mates; we spent so much time together, uncaring of what the world thought. 

What’s more, I soon learned to throw caution to the winds.   

Some folks thought I was also throwing my shame to the winds,  but those were still days of  worrying about  “What will they say” ,  in the life of a woman in smaller towns,  and my wife of so many years, stoically continued her career , and life,  bringing up our sons single handedly,  as she continued to hear about my various escapades , and deny them to those close to her , who hinted at stuff.

 I  married again.  Divorce was then really and only   in the law books. No one actually went to court on it.

V and I were the toast of the literary world, and we travelled the world.  I thought I had done my first wife a big favor by transferring my old house in her name and making a onetime provision for the sons, and I continued flying high as I published one best seller after another.   

Yes, there were rumblings, anonymous letters, occasional lawyer missives, but people stopped at mentioning polygamy, and everyone let the status quo be.   V and I had one son and one daughter, who went to the best schools and colleges in Mumbai.  For the second time,  I  enjoyed the childhood of my newer kids well into my fifties and sixties; till destiny thought it should intervene.   

V was diagnosed with cancer. 

I did not know what hit me.  My kids grew up overnight, and it was years and years of hospitals, chemotherapy, sunken faces, shrunken bodies, wild agony,  pain, and depression.   It was also a time of immense expenditure, and my daughter took up an assignment abroad, so she could contribute her mite.  My son soon followed, and then it was just the two of us. 

We had slowed down,   V due to the big C digging viciously, into her innards, and me ,  simply due to a heart, abused , physically and mentally, over decades. 

One windy rainy day, I got up at dawn to close the window that seemed to allow raindrops in, and returned to find that V was lying a bit strangely, and was not responding to anything. 

Somewhere at night, she had left us all. 

I don’t remember much of what followed.   My kids came for a few days, stayed and left, promising to come again soon.  My friends rallied around, there were write-ups in the paper,   and slowly, one got back to life.

I was completely, for the first time in my life, completely and desperately, alone.

Life was set into a routine of walks, doctor visits, writing, and the meals always came from an arrangement from a nearby lady who provided dabbas.     Neighbors dropped in occasionally, being nice to an old man, who clearly had no one, that they could see.  V had been friends with the ladies of the neighborhood,  and they thought they owed it to her memory.  I sometimes forgot things like keys, and always kept a spare set with them.

This is how they found me one evening, when they noticed a dabba, unopened, left outside the door since the morning.   I was barely breathing,  slightly bluish, could not stand on my own, and they rushed me to the hospital.  The children were informed.  My daughter couldn’t come, but immediately sent funds so as to get the best treatment. My son would follow and be there in a few days. 

I was in Intensive care for a while, then out in the wards for a while, and then again in Intensive care, as the doctors debated the course of treatment.  Second and third opinions were taken, and they said a transplant was the only treatment of choice.  I guess when you have so many mental blocks in your heart, and you ignore them,   as they play havoc with stages of your life, angioplasties don’t help;   you simply need a complete replacement,  a makeover.  

I soon got used to the ICU. There would be all these ticking metres,  numbers changing on displays,  nurses suddenly rushing to a cubicle, as someone heaved and breathed their last.  At first it bothered me,  but I got used to it.     

We were on a list,  for a transplant organ, and the doctors were alert.  When a possibility arose, there was a flurry of activity.  We were told a heart would be available from Pune, and once we knew the schedule, I would be prepped for the transplant.     

The special day dawned; my daughter had arrived, and we were told there would be a green road channel monitored by the police to ensure that the harvested heart from the Pune donor reached in the quickest time, in the finest condition. 

I was lying in the OT, being prepped, and heard the cardiac nurses talk.   The doctors were scrubbing, machines were being checked, instruments counted, people were constantly on the phone,   and I was told who the donor was.

It was someone in his late fifties, or possibly early sixties,    who was injured in a bike accident, and never recovered consciousness.   His family had graciously allowed the use of any organs that could save lives.

The chief cardiac operation theatre  nurse mentioned the name of the patient.

If my heart had been beating on its own, I would have missed a beat.  Perhaps stopped.  I caught my breath.   

In my sorry condition, I could only stare and curse destiny.
 I recognized the name.   It bore the same last name as me.  And the middle name was mine.  That is how we name our children in Maharashtra. 

This son never had a choice while he lived, and now, the choice was made for him , after he died. 

A jangling phone alerted the nurse and she rushed off to answer.   There was some problem with the vehicle bringing the stuff, there would be a delay, but they were to remain ready to receive the heart at any time.  

I was agitated beyond anything. They thought it was the thought of the delayed transplant. They could not have been more wrong.

They didn’t know that it was the last thing on my mind.  My entire life, spent in a wild, willful way, unconcerned with feelings of some, who bore my name and resemblance.    

And at the end of it all, a donor heart coming  from  him, who must have clearly thought  all these years,  that I was a heartless sod.

Yes, very clearly, and unequivocally, I was.  A sod, with a heart, teetering on its last legs.

I didn’t want to taint his heart.  I simply did not have the right.

There was a bell, and a beep, and the assisting doctor rushed to the door.  Presumably to supervise the arrival.   Things had to happen in quick time, in proper steps,  as planned, and this was the beginning.

For me, this was a final humiliation.  I prayed for a delay.  I did not want a transplant.  The doctor turned to walk outside the OT.

I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. "Ten, nine, eight, seven..."

They say I was slurring zero, when they rushed in……

Friday, October 16, 2015

At the Cutting Edge......

 The Times of India initiated a Write India Campaign a few months ago. Eleven popular authors  would participate. Each month, a given author would indicate a certain passage, and the idea was those interested in participating would  include this passage and develop a short story and submit it.  There would be 10 stories highlighted each month, and one winner declared, who would win a Kindle.

Looking at  prompts and building stories around them is something that takes me back to school days, when you were given a subject and had to write essays.  Except , then, your teacher had something to say about it.  

In keeping with the spirit of going digital, you can now be a  0 or a 1.  And there are no feedback comments. 

 The second month results are out, and while it is very clear  that one is NOT  amongst the talented top 10,  it has been a fun thing to participate in. 

The same spirit of going digital now allows me a fun opportunity of  putting my zero category entry on the blog.  

 Chetan Bhagat  was the second author. The passage he specified was : 

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her “blue silk scarf”. ..         (you could use the passage anywhere within the story)

--------------------------------------------My entry ----------------------------------------------

At the Cutting Edge.

Esha,  was  startled out of her reverie by the sudden braking of the CST local.  As usual, the train came to a stop just outside the main station, and waited, in anticipation, of a free platform, where she could disgorge her innards, full of active, hardworking, cheek to jowl standing folks, mobilizing to rush to work, hurrying across the grand interiors of the station.

Collecting her purse and a small handbag, she moved towards the door.  The train would start with a knowing jerk, and slowly glide into CST. 

Like a child homing to its mother.

No.  She didn’t want to think about it like that.  It hurt.   

There was a time when she found something hurtful, and quickly shoved it away from her mind,   trying to convince  herself  that her mind was at fault.   But when something happened again and again, she wondered.    

The last few years had gone by in a blur. 

Esha  Prabhu had become  Esha Gupta,   with great celebrations and  declarations.  She had met Harish at an Equal Streets event, where they were conducting a drawing competition for kids on the wondrously empty Sunday streets.   Many months of cutting chais, train rides, chats and chaats, whatsapp, FB and hanging around with each other’s   friends, they decided to take a step ahead.

Families met.   Appraised each other.  Smiled.  Approved.  And  Esha-Harish were now hyphenated.

Six months later, amidst all the mandatory pomp, ceremony, and social posturing, they were married.  The family owned factories and stuff, and the women did not need to work, although socially active at all times. 

Esha, who had completed her Masters in Social Work, wanted to work.  And that’s when she started sensing the speed breakers. Or maybe she should have called them potholes?

She would apply to some place, get a call, and just when she got ready to go, something would change, and the interview would get called off.   Sometimes she thought it was some disorganized HR of the company, sometimes she thought it was just her luck.  

Harish would be busy with his managerial responsibilities in his family enterprises, and when he was home, never really had an ear for such cribs.   On the rare occasions that he heard her out, he would suggest patience, respect for his folks, family traditions etc  etc.   And she would force herself to keep quiet, wondering what happened to the old Harish of Equal Streets.

Then, one day, something changed.   Within her, that is.

At first she couldn’t figure it out, and then she realized, she had missed her period.  

It was a matter of time and soon the women folk  were buzzing with the news.   Her parents were delighted, and so were the in-laws.  Many customary celebrations were done.    No one really said anything about her going to work.   And so she decided to enjoy this new phase in her life and think about work later.   Acutely aware of the changes, the shapes, the sense of movements within her, she faithfully went for checkups with her ma-in-law. 

Till she was advised a sonography. 

There was all that water she had to drink before the procedure, and then the actual sonography, and the rushing to the bathroom desperately afterwards, with her ma-in-law solicitously hovering.    Then the waiting for the report.

Not that she understood the technical jargon, but she heard someone say it was a baby girl.  And she smiled as she went to bed that night.  Clearly, law prevented mentioning this in the report.   But some whispers happen despite the law.   Which may have long arms, but sometimes has ears too,  that actually shut? 

She can’t tell the exact moment things changed, but before she knew what was happening, she was told there was something wrong with the fetus; it was not destined to go to full term.   She was admitted to the hospital, and she emerged, with a uterus, completely bereft and a mind, completely blank.

Everyone made the solicitous noises, hovered around, and spoke of how young she was, and how there would be another time, and so on.   Harish was affected, and it was assumed, that his silence bespoke support to her. 

Life got back on to the previous well trodden track once again.  Like they say, time heals.  And time did its stuff.

A year later, she went through the exact same stuff. Conception, celebration, checkups, and an urgent D and C. This time she stayed a bit longer in hospital, and confirmed what she had always suspected since a year.   

Daughters were not wanted in the family.   And she was just a machine that kept getting rebooted time and again.   

Maybe it was time to move to a place of her own with Harish.  Maybe her unborn children would have a better future then.    She discussed this with him, and was not terribly surprised to see, that he did not want to do that. He was in his comfort zone, and who cared about whether she was?

She went home to her folks for a few days, and thought things out.  She decided to leave her marital home.   She couldn’t spend a lifetime fitting into a constantly changing random jigsaw puzzle.   Her parents were aghast.  Nice girls from good families didn’t do this.

And so she shifted out.  Both,  from her in-laws,  as well as her parents.  

The in-laws could figure out what to tell nosy folks, and her parents wouldn’t have to explain to folks who came with proposals for her younger sisters.   

She was qualified, and found a job with an NGO, and a small shared room in a women’s hostel, with leaky rooms, insufficient bathrooms, and terrible food.   There were health problems, gynaec  ones,   there were repercussions of the earlier surgical interventions, but she was beyond worry.   She would cross bridges when she reached them.

She was happy, as she traveled daily by Mumbai’s iconic but geriatric suburban railways, ensconced in the warmth of the fellowship of diverse women.

She loved her work, her colleagues from different backgrounds, the ethos, and her natural abilities ensured that she was appointed to a supervisor level person.   Years passed.  She kept in touch with her old friends, but life had changed.   She now enjoyed visiting schools and colleges to speak about the Social Work Discipline now available for undergraduates, and was much appreciated as a speaker.

Another day.   Another train ride.

She got in, or rather, got pushed in to the compartment that morning, and was pleased to see her usual companions of the trip.  Sometimes, they saved a seat for her, and sometimes, they shared their seat, offering to stand half the way, so she could sit.    They were single women, mothers of small kids, older women braving the tough crowds, and even school girls, travelling to schools. There were also the fisherwomen.  Nothing daunted them, as they clambered into the compartment, big baskets on their heads, tilted a bit sideways to avoid tangling with the middle pole at the entrance.   And then there were the hawkers. 

They often knew the regular commuters.   You could get anything in the train, from clothes, to trinkets, to bed sheets, to kurta pieces.   Vegetable portions and food too. Entrepreneurship at its best, because they knew the women going home would save time dealing with the veggies in their long one hour commute north.   Esha often admired those who actually chopped  and/or peeled stuff in the train, making good use of the time. 

The train glided into a junction en route, and a wave of humanity slid out, followed by another one getting in, stumbling to find a sitting place.   Something made her look.  It was a woman, possibly full term pregnant, and what looked like her mother or mother-in-law, chaperoning her.  The sisterhood conspired to create a seat for her, and the train departed, lulling everyone into its comfortable rhythm.

She could see the pregnant woman wince, and move and adjust herself, and the elder lady comfort her.  Her neighbors smiled at her. They had been through it all.  As always happens, there was chitchat.  They were on their way to one of Mumbai’s municipal hospitals.  The pregnant woman’s husband was in the general compartment.  And would join them at the terminus.

Suddenly, the woman moved, and tried to stand.   There was a buzz around her as a pool of liquid spread on the compartment floor.  Her neighbors got up, realizing what had happened, and shouted out for help.  Were there any nurses or paramedics travelling?  Possibly medical students?   

As it always happens, first there was a rush to see what had happened. And then better sense prevailed.  Yes, there was a trainee nurse travelling.  She dashed forward.  Asked the women to create a protective enclosure.  Several  dupattas  came off and were opened and tied  here and there, or even held  by folks  to allow the woman some privacy of sorts.   A few women including  Esha dashed  forth to help, and follow the trainee  nurse’s instructions.  Women carrying newspapers and tissues,  offered their supply. Those who carried  napkins and towels  offered everything they had.    

An amazing coming together,  of women, for women.   Some attended  to the impending birth, some supported her physically  as she pushed, some continued to say words of comfort, patting her and pushing back her hair from her face.

The adjoining gent’s compartment  could be  seen through a grill in the compartment wall, and some of the ladies sent word ,  after ascertaining the husband’s name;   his wife was in labour, was being attended ,  and they would keep him informed.    They then covered the grilled window.  

The Maximum city,  sometimes performs to more than maximum.

Guided by the nurse,  the woman delivered ,  and word was passed around  that they needed something to cut the umbilical cord.   The baby lay on the woman’s abdomen, amidst  what could have been called a   mess, but was actually  an amazing victory  for the child.   Esha suddenly remembered her friend who cut veggies every evening , and shouted out to her. 

Somewhere from the back , a knife was passed around and Esha  took charge and gave it to the nurse.  A fresh unopened razor blade would have been better, but then  a woman’s  life is more about knives and less about blades.

For an instant, she waited, and then the child was free.  A new entrant into the  world, learning even before  birth, what lay in store.   It was a girl, and the compartment rejoiced.  

In the meanwhile, the people in the adjoining gent’s compartment had informed the railway police,  who informed the motorman .   Somewhere before reaching the CST terminus,  the new mother, the new grandmother, the new father , and the nurse, got off and were rushed to the nearest hospital .

The compartment   got slowly back to normal,  wreathed in a euphoric high, as  the  ladies  made their way,  some to disembark,  some to  tentatively sit  till CST,  and some just to enjoy the breeze in the doorway.   There was adrenaline in the air,  and a sense of power and achievement.

Esha  glanced around,  and saw  folks move away  from the delivery scene.   A  jumble of  dupattas, towels,  newspapers, and  fluid.  

And somewhere amidst it all,  was  the knife.  Like her,   bloodied,   a bit from the skirmish, but more from the environment.   She  spied  a  part of a blue dupatta that was still untouched by the stuff, tore off a large piece, and wrapped it around the bloody knife.  Quietly  she held it in her arms as she anchored her purse on her shoulder and gravitated to the door.

She would soon be at CST and would need to disembark.

She walked , as if in a dream,  to the doors of the station,  and felt  a sudden loss of energy.   It was a coming down to normal, from the  extended  high  in the compartment, and she stopped in her path.

She needed to have a coffee.  And get her thoughts together.   

A  Starbucks beckoned.   She normally never went there due to what she thought were outrageous prices.   But she needed  to sit,  amidst some solitude and quiet.  She needed some time alone .

She felt strangely happy , and rich.  She had helped bring a little girl into this world.  Against huge odds.   There were no spic and span wards, no shiny instruments,  no surreptitious,  narrow minded , cheating family types,  but a huge  set of ordinary folks willing the little girl  to make it to this world.  All the dupattas were like silk , as if softly mobilizing to swaddle the child.

She smiled and felt a sense of closure.    Knives could kill, but then,  some knives were life givers.

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her “blue silk scarf”. ..

She was home.