It was yet too early. He rang the bell and the doors had opened after a lag of time. It was Shashikant himself who had opened the door. He witnessed a greater surprise – and shock – on Shashikant’s face than he had anticipated. He was certain that Shashikant didn’t quite know what to do. Before coming here, he too had put himself in Shashikant’s place and was addled by the situation.
In fact, Shashikant could not have imagined that he would appear before him in this manner out of the blue. Ordinarily, they shunned each other and if, out of compulsion, they came to stand close in a gathering, they avoided eye contact. It had been going on like this for the last fifteen years. Worldly-wise, he should not have come to Shashikant’s place. But he had crossed all the limits of worldly dealings and stood liberated of them. He could, if he desired, have said ‘hello’ with a bit of smile and helped Shashikant a little to wriggle out of this odd situation. But it had also been his secret intention to see how Shashikant reacted to his move. As happens in such circumstances, the unopened newspaper in the hands of Shashikant kept fluttering, his mouth gaped open and his forehead was etched deeply with lines of anxiety.
Last night, a thought had suddenly struck him that he should list out his enemies. It took him a lot of time making the list. Not that the list was long, but because it was not an easy task for him to differentiate between friends and foes. Without the least doubt, he scripted the names of three persons he could call his enemies instantly, Shashikant’s being top of them. But after that he faced much difficulty to continue. There were quite many persons who he thought were his enemies on the sly, even though they met him with a great show of affection and warmth. There were a few others whom he suspected of animosity without being certain of their intentions. Many of them were the people against whom others had poisoned his heart. Working on the list, he pondered whether his real enemies may turn out to be those who had been maligning others before him. It came as a surprise to him how readily a man is prepared to consider another man his enemy and how difficult it is for him to win a friend. But he was no longer ready to take anyone his enemy merely on grounds of suspicion. Anyway, it is only for a man alive and kicking to care who his friend is and who is not. He was free of such cares. Technically speaking, he was still living and breathing, but he was alive no more in true sense of the word.
In normal conditions he would have felt queasy about going to Shashikant’s home and standing before him in this manner. It was possible that he might have felt deterred. For all that, now he did not feel any hesitation, thanks to his singular condition. On the contrary, he felt in control of the situation. Standing on the threshold, he thrust his hand into his coat pocket to take out a white envelope and extended it towards Shashikant. Then, without the least trace of a smile on his face, he said, “I thought this envelop may now be given to you. There’s nothing special in it, except some gauche photographs of yours and mine from our hostel days. I thought you might be embarrassed unnecessarily if they fell in the wrong hands.” Turning back, he walked homewards, leaving Shashikant in a more confused state. On reaching home, he got over the dramatic aftermath of the incident and reflected whether there was any meaning to what he had done to Shashikant.
The sun had risen a wee bit higher by now. Morning-walkers on their way home were buying vegetables from the makeshift stalls on the roadside. Out of habit, he also thought of buying fresh vegetables for home. But he felt a little indifferent to selecting tender ladyfingers and bottle gourd. He kept walking towards his home without buying anything.
He had taken a decision to commit suicide yesterday morning itself. All his life he had believed in the hearsay that it was only the faint-hearted who committed suicide: persons who couldn’t face the hardships that came in life. But this he could not say about his own intention. It was because he had not taken the decision either in fear, under compulsion or in a dazed anxiety. It was a well calibrated resolve of his after he had weighed all the aspects, much like the CEO of a big concern who has to take a very harsh decision to help his company tide over a catastrophe or chart out a plan for a fundamental change.
Until two or three days before the decision, his mind was fraught with ambivalence as well as impatience for not being decisive enough. But now that he had taken a resolve, he was completely satisfied and at peace with himself. The resulting composure came as a mild surprise to him. A doubt bothered him at times if he had lost his mental balance because of distress and despair. For this kind of peace he had experienced never before. Now, detached from everything, he looked at the world from a new standpoint. He felt as if he had got rid of tons of load off his chest and become absolutely free. What was this freedom from? He couldn’t tell. Was it the freedom from having to muster the wherewithal to live this life? Before, he had no doubt considered life a burden oftenly, but today, after having taken the decision, he had extricated himself from such petty considerations that presented life as a burden. The fact of the matter was that the instant he had decided to commit suicide, he felt himself set apart from his body. He was there, and so was his body, but the two were not together. They were apart. He saw and heard everything going around him and tried to understand its significance. He had the capacity now to do things which he could not have even imagined doing before. Could he have conducted himself earlier with Shashikant the way he had this morning?
When he reached home, the gardener had arrived and his wife was giving him instructions about the flowerbeds. Seeing him entering from the gate, she asked, “Where have you been this early? I thought you were sitting in the open. The tea I made for you has gone cold.” He looked at his wife pensively. He did not want to perturb her by telling the truth, neither had he the answers to the questions his wife was to ask about his visit to Shashikant’s home. Dismissing the matter, he responded, “Nothing special. I had gone out for a stroll.”
His wife said, “I thought you had gone for a blood sugar test. Why don’t you go and give a sample for the test? It is two weeks since you had the last one. You can have tea after that.”
He thought how concerned she was about his health. But was there any meaning left now in getting a sugar test done on him? All these hassles about sugar and high blood pressure would shortly come to an end. Preempting her to dwell any further on the topic, he said, “I’ll do it tomorrow. I don’t have any inclination today.”
The wife said, “I will make you another cup of tea. First, let me give a few instructions to the gardener.”
She then began to speak to the gardener. Seeing his wife’s keen interest in flowers, he had employed a full-time gardener and was bearing the expense on the retainer even after his retirement. She said to the gardener, “Plant these chrysanthemum seedlings on the flower bed adjacent to the wall so that the flowers are visible to anyone coming out of the house. And plant this daisy in the two trays here. Sunshine falls a wee bit more here.”
He was wondering that fifteen days from now, the flowers would bloom on these seedlings. Flowers would bloom. It won’t make them any difference whether he was there or not.
Then he had a faint twinge of pity for his wife. Would she be able to manage all after he was gone? But one has to manage somehow or the other when one is called upon to do so. The world goes on. He had arrived at the conclusion that any pity shown to her now would tend to inflict cruelty on her.
As the gardener went about planting the seedlings, he noticed that the fellow’s shoes were torn and a big toe was peeping out of one of the poor man’s shoes. Working in the wet earth the man must be feeling cold, he felt. He recalled having two pairs of shoes which he had not used for the last two years. He went inside the house and brought back both the pairs. Coming out, he went to the busy gardener and said to him, “Hari Chand, see and try on these shoes. Do they fit you?”
The gardener’s face glowed with happiness on seeing the pairs of shoes. He looked at him with gratitude. Getting up with alacrity, he began to try the shoes on his feet. His open and smiling mouth displayed tobacco-stained teeth. By this time, the wife had also returned from the house with a mug in her hand. She stopped in her tracks on noticing the two pairs of shoes lying with the gardener. Frowning at her husband, she expressed her anger through her blazing eyes. He took no cognizance of her and said to the gardener, “The shoes are the right size for you. Take them along when you go home.”
The housewife on meeting the gardener’s eyes threw him an artificial smile and said, “See, how well we look after you. And you are the one who is so casual about his work. You call it a day whenever you want to. Look at the neighbour’s plants. So lush and green they are; and ours, they are all pale and dried up! Now you will work sincerely with us. Have you heard me?” His wife wanted somehow to extract full value of the shoes. Then, wiping the smile off her face, she beckoned to him, “Please come in for a minute.”
Well did he know why she was calling him inside the house. But he followed her anyhow. The moment he entered the house, she shouted at him angrily, “What has gone wrong with you, eh? Haven’t I been telling you repeatedly not to pamper the domestics? What was the need to give him both the pair of shoes at one go? If at all you had decided to give him both the pairs, it was enough to give him one pair now. The second pair could be given him some other time. It would have made him happier to have been rewarded twice. Do not in future give away anything without asking me.”
He kept his quiet. A few days from now she would be giving away all his clothes and things to some old age home, and today she is troubled over parting with his worn shoes, he thought wryly.
His daughter hurtled down the stairs as usual and approaching them asked, “Papa, give me five hundred rupees.” She seemed too dressed up for the morning. Her scooty’s key dangled from her hand. His surprised wife asked her with some annoyance, “Where are you going this early?” The girl hissed with a fury greater than her mother’s, “To the college. We’re going on a picnic.” Instantly, the mother shot out another question at her daughter, “Who are the ones going with you?”
He knew that as soon as she heard of a picnic, his wife’s mind would be filled with images of their daughter’s capers with Rohit. They both were disturbed the day they had come to know of Rohit’s caste. Fretting together, they had spent many a night wide awake. But he was not worried any more about Rohit’s caste. Everything had a changed meaning for him now. With the opening of the death’s door, he did not know how many other doors had opened for him and how many closed.
The girl answered back in a higher pitch and with yet greater fury, “My class fellows are going with me, who else?” She knew well that her mother dare not ask her openly whether or not Rohit too was accompanying her.
Taking sides with his wife he remarked, “Five hundred is a huge amount. What will you do with this kind of money?”
For an instant the girl gave him a stone-cold stare and then vigorously thumping her feet on the ground, she shrieked, “I don’t know what happens to you when I ask for money. Keep your money with yourself if you love it so much. You may take it along when you are gone. I don’t need your money. Hm!”
Having demonstrated her anger, the girl turned and quickly left the room. Soon after, there was the sound of the scooty being started. He knew that his daughter had uttered the harsh words to vent out some other disappointment. His wife stood offended and there was a sad smile on his own lips. He couldn’t help thinking how his daughter could bring herself to say something so bitter to him, “You love money!”
Night had fallen. He lay alone on his bed. Sounds of his wife doing chores emanated from the kitchen. When the doctor told him that he had cancer, he had felt as if the information was not being conveyed to him but to someone else and that he was merely a witness to the goings on between the one who was telling and the one who listened. That moment had changed everything for him. From then on, he had become more of a watcher than a doer. Before his brain could fully grasp the implications of what he was told and he felt any fear or perturbation, he asked with a tiny smile, “Doctor, what stage is this?” He was himself surprised at that smile.
The doctor while delivering the death sentence to him had said in a commiserating manner, “It has spread far, I’m afraid. But nowadays new treatments are available….” He had not heard the rest of the speech. He was certain that he had come out of the doctor’s office after putting all his papers in a file, then giving the doctor a smile and shaking hands with him.
But as soon as he came out of the doctor’s office, a terrible wave of anxiety had overwhelmed him, such as he had never experienced in all his life. It was as if a living evil spirit had entered into his body and taken possession of his mind. For quite some time he went about in turmoil, not aware of anything else. The cancer spreading inside him had turned his head. With his muddled brain, he tried to find solutions to the astounding problems that his galloping cancer had brought before him. For how long would he remain on his feet? How painful the death would be? What would his kin feel on his demise? How would his wife and daughter fend for themselves? Should he or shouldn’t he tell them of his condition? Impossible posers, the solutions to most of which he could not find, rose in his bosom like blazing flames. Then he did not know what happened. The storm of questions which brought this disquiet to him began slowly to abate.
He had been accustomed to placing the self at the centre while thinking about any aspect of life. But now confronted with his death as he was, he had to think about the life that had gone before him and the life that will go on after him. It was altogether a new experience for him. It compelled him to ponder over the deep questions of being and not being. Earlier also questions like these used to arise in his mind from time to time, but their present intensity had taken a stranglehold of all his thinking powers. This intensity was such that it had eclipsed his very being. He felt as if his existence had already come to an end – as if he was no more. And then the turbulence in his mind had subsided. As on the ebb of a tide an ocean’s fearsome waves leave behind a deep quietude with their marks on the sands, so did the subsiding flood of his anxiety leave him in stark peace.
It took him three or four days to arrive at the decision after that. He knew there was not much time left to him. He tried to conceive the whole scenario post his death and took well considered decisions. He listed out all his assets and reckoned the future expenses. He had a bank balance of some ten lakh. The household expenses were defrayed through his pension, which would accrue to his wife all her life.
The amount of ten lakh rupees would enable their daughter do a decent MBA course and also see through her marriage expenses. If he told his wife about his cancer, she would force him to spend the last paisa on his treatment. It would not only burn out all his capital, but he may have even to borrow additional funds. And he was not going to survive in the end. He was aware how those persons who sought treatment died by inches at the last stage. He didn’t want to put himself in such a helpless and painful situation. The whole problem had but one solution: he had to take his own life and that too, at the earliest. He had sought out the least painful method to commit suicide. Tonight was to be his last night. He closed his eyes. The sound of clanging pots and pans was still coming out from the kitchen. He recalled the frenzied loves, the poisonous hatreds and the warmly maintained relations he had lived through. Memories also came back to him of the deep wounds of the hopes quashed and the blind joys of his achievements. How appropriate it all had seemed then; how meaningless and hollow those things looked to him now! Different are the meanings life and death impart to everything.
If he were to change his decision to commit suicide even at that moment, then all matters would regain the significance they had lost today. But he had already crossed that limit and did not have any intention to return.
He turned to his side and began to think about the task he had to acquit during the night.