Saturday, September 23, 2017

For One More Day – A Short Story

Everything was quiet. Eerily quiet.

It was dark and he couldn’t see much. He was sitting on a long slab of stone and he could make out unfinished brick walls at a short distance from him. For some reason, he felt he had seen this place before. But where?

Khushal felt queasy and dithery. He couldn’t remember what he was doing here. How had he arrived at this spot? What was he doing here in this darkness alone? He tried to remember, but his head felt heavy. Everything in his mind was foggy.

He shut his eyes tight and opened them again. But nothing changed. The same stone slab. The same darkness. The same unfinished brick walls.

“Feels strange, doesn’t it?” came a voice from near him.

Khushal jerked around to notice a man sitting next to him. He wasn’t there before.

The man wore an overlong saffron-colored robe, had a V-shaped clean-shaven face with silky, black hair that came to his shoulders. He was keenly observing the place as if finding it quite captivating.

Khushal stared him, his heart thumping madly in his chest. He wanted to make a run for it. But for some reason, he simply could not move.

“Oh, don’t think of running away now, Khushal,” the man said while turning to look at him with a smile. “You were meant to be here.” He had a very pacifying, soothing voice.

“Who…?” Khushal fumbled “Who…?”

“Who am I?” he said. “Well, let’s just say I am your bus conductor for today,” he chuckled, apparently pretty pleased with what he had just said. “I need to drop you at a station for a while.”

Khushal gaped at him, not being able to comprehend what was happening. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the hoot of a train.

“How…How do you know my name?” Khushal asked him, feeling uncomfortable.

“Oh, I know everything about you,” he said languidly. “Let’s see…You are Khushal Mapara. You are 32, a struggling writer and stay alone with your father in Calcutta,” the man said while counting each sentence on his slender fingers.  “You were born and brought up in Calcutta but you have always had a soft spot for Udaipur, your ‘nani-ghar’. You have an elder brother who stays with his family in Vadodara,” he continued nonchalantly. “You were a mediocre student. But you were always good at drawing and writing. The latter,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes, “Is, in fact, your greatest passion.”

Khushal stared at the man nonplussed.

“You lost your mother to breast cancer when you were twenty. And you have never been able to recover from it. Her passing has wounded you deeply,” he added seriously. “You think of her all the time.  You see her in your dreams. You feel hollow without her. And you can’t take the bubbling and ever-growing emptiness inside you any longer. You have receded into a shell. You’ve become a recluse and you just want to give up... I think that about sums it up, right?” he asked simply.

Khushal was genuinely alarmed now. He wanted to run. But he could not make himself budge an inch from the slab he was sitting on.

“Relax, child!” the man said softly. “I am not here to harm you. Quite the contrary, actually.”

“I…I don’t understand,” Khushal said, breathing heavily. “What is happening? Where am I?”

The man peered at him closely. “What is the last thing you remember,” he questioned.

“I…I…I don’t remember,” Khushal said honestly.

“Try harder,” the man said pacifyingly. “Again.”

Khushal closed his eyes and tried to clear the muddle inside his mind. He concentrated hard. And then, there was a flash.  He remembered coming out of an eatery late in the night, clutching plastic bags in both his hands. He remembered as he was crossing the road, one of the bags slipped from his hand. He had bent down to pick it up when all of a sudden a yellow cab came on to him. Khushal had frozen completely and the last thing he remembered was the headlights of the taxi, growing bigger and bigger.

Khushal shot open his eyes, heaving badly.

He turned to look at the man, who was observing him with keen interest.

Khushal bent his head, wheezing and coughing, Khushal asked, “Am…Am I dead? Is…Is this…?” he couldn’t complete what he had to say. Fear was clouding every particle inside him. All he could think of was his father’s face.

“Relax, child,” the man said comfortingly and put an arm around his shoulders. “You are just resting. For now.”

There was something assuaging about his voice that calmed Khushal down a bit.

“Where am I? What…What is this place?” he asked the man, desperately seeking some answers.

“This, my friend,” he said while extending his hands dramatically and looking ahead, “Is one of your favourite places of your childhood.”

Khushal was confused. He observed the surroundings closely.  The unfinished brick walls. The stone slab. The train at the distance. Realization suddenly hit him. This was the terrace of his ‘nani-ghar’ in Udaipur from back when he was little. He goggled at everything with his mouth hanging open.

“What…What am I doing here? Is this a dream?” he asked while not taking his eyes from the walls in front of him.

“You have been battling with yourself for a long time now, Khushal,” the man said. “It is time for you to gain just a little perspective…. From your very own experience.”

Khushal started at him. He wanted to feel annoyed at the man. He wanted to feel scared. But there was something about his voice, his face, that made him feel calm.

The man chortled merrily. A breeze ruffled his long hair. “Do not worry, my child! I am just dropping you off somewhere. At a particular time… Which, I hope, would give you a little nudge in the right direction.”

“Drop…Dropping me?” Khushal asked, alarmed. “But where? And…And why me?”

The man slanted his head a little, peering keenly at Khushal. “I wish I had the answers. But this is the way it is supposed to be. I am just a bus conductor, you see,” he said languorously.

He rolled up the sleeves of his robe. “Now,” he said. “Remember, you have till the birthday celebrations begin.”

“Birthday? I…I don’t understand,” Khushal stuttered.

“You will,” said the man and winked.

He brought his right hand close to Khushal’s face, pointing his index finger right at the center of his forehead.

Khushal began feeling drowsy. It was as if he was being pulled inside a whirl of tranquility. Far ahead he could just make out the skies turning a hue of orangish-pink. A train hooted again at the distance.

“Time to wake up, son!” whispered the man with a smile and lightly touched his forehead with his finger.

Khushal felt dizzy. His eyes fluttered and then closed on their own. Everything swirled inside him.

And then there was nothing…



****************************************************************************************************************************************



“Chikuuu…”

His eyes twitched.

“Chikuuuu…get up now!”

He shifted uncomfortably and his eyelids fluttered a little. Balmy sunlight trickled in on his face directly from the front.

He turned his face to the side, suppressing a yawn.

“Chikuuuu…Get up now. The water is about to run out!” a male voice said anxiously.

Khushal opened his eyes.

He was on a bed. He could make out some movement near him on the bed. The sound of the ruffling of some pages made him feel cozy. His eyes fluttered, about to close again.

“Stop moving your legs so much,” someone said from near him. And the next moment, he felt shooting pain on his ankles.

Khushal woke up with a start, rubbing his ankles. His heart was thumping loudly. He found a young boy sitting near his legs, looking at him scornfully. He must have been about fifteen, had curly hair and wore thick spectacles. He had a newspaper in one hand and was sitting with his back against the window.

“What are you staring at, moron?” he said disdainfully and returned his attention to the newspaper on his hands.

Khushal knew the boy. He knew the face. That curly hair. Those spectacles. He knew that scornful expression on his face so well.

“Bha…Bhaiya?!” Khushal muttered and then stopped immediately.

His own voice. It sounded strange. It was heavy but was a little croaky. He wasn’t familiar with the voice coming out of his own mouth.

“What is wrong with you?” the boy said and then kicked Khushal on the shin lightly. “Move aside, I need to read properly.”

Khushal moved his legs to the side and the boy made more room for himself.

Khushal looked around. The room was small. It had two grey-colored almirahs at one corner and a large window with slender bars opposite them. At the center was a bed on which the boy and Khushal sat. The walls were cream-yellow in color. There was a wooden cupboard at the window’s left and an old television set atop it.

Khushal was familiar with this room. He knew it too well.

This was where he had grown up. This was his childhood home.

Khushal breathed heavily, trying to control his rampaging heartbeats.

This is a dream. This is a dream. He assured himself.

He felt groggy and shut his eyes, trying to make sense of what was happening.

“Chikuu…enough now,” came that familiar male voice again and a second later a man entered the room.

“You must take your bath now. The water will run out in fifteen minutes. Go on now!” he said urgently.

Khushal gaped at him. The man. He was his father. Only, he looked younger. Much, much younger.

His scalp had much more curly hair. He looked bulkier. And wore huge, square spectacles. Not the round, narrow ones Khushal was used to seeing on him.

Khushal had forgotten this version of his face. It almost felt like he was looking at an old film reel of his father.

“Stop staring now. C’mon, get going,” he snapped his fingers at Khushal seriously and left.

This is a dream. This is a dream. Khushal repeated in his mind.

Khushal steadied himself. And then his eyes fell on the newspaper lying near him on the bed. He picked it up.

It was titled ‘The Telegraph’. Khushal moved his eyes to the date column. It read: ‘Calcutta, Thursday, 17 August 1995’.

Khushal’s head spun. He felt giddy. He cast a furtive glance at the young boy drowned in the newspaper and checked the surroundings again.

A breeze wafted in and Khushal gulped in some air. Somewhere far, he could hear the faint noise of a female singing a song.

Khushal decided to move. Slowly, he dragged his body out of the bed and stood up cautiously. Instantly, he felt different. He felt woozy. Something had changed. His body felt lighter. It was almost as if the gravity of his body had been transformed completely. This certainly did not feel like his six feet four inch frame.

Khushal turned to his left and his eyes fell on the mirror on the almirah. A gangly, ten-year-old boy stared back at him. He must have been about five feet five inches tall and wore a striped red polo t-shirt along with a khaki pair of bermuda shorts. His short, silky hair was all over the place and his hands and legs were incredibly slender.

Khushal gawked back at his 10-year-old self in wonder and shock. He touched his right cheek. The boy in the mirror did the same. The surface of his cheek felt so smooth and clean, devoid of all the roughness and abrasiveness that he was used to.

This isn’t real. This can’t be. Khushal thought fiercely and shut his eyes.

The image of the man in the saffron robes. The terrace. The man’s finger pointing at him. They swarmed back into Khushal’s mind.

He opened his eyes again, breathing deeply. The boy in the mirror looked absolutely stricken.

How can this be happening? He held the almirah handle to steady himself.

Then, he heard a voice. A mellifluous female voice. It seemed to be coming from somewhere near.

Khushal gingerly stepped out of the room into the corridor. The voice grew clearer. It was chanting in rhythm.

“Shri Krishna govind hare murari…
Hey nath narayan vasudeva…”

Khushal had heard this voice before. He had woken up to it all his childhood.

He stumbled along the familiar corridor and entered a larger room. He couldn’t pay attention to anything inside. He mind was solely focused on the voice. It was pulling him and it grew louder.

“Gokul mein chamke mathura ke tare…
Hey nath narayan vasudeva…”

Khushal’s heart thudded madly. His legs felt weak. His throat felt dry. Yet he couldn’t stop himself. He crossed the room even as his whole body trembled and walked slowly towards the voice.

“Shri Krishna Govind Hare Murari…
Hey Nath Narayan Vasudeva…”

He reached the end of the room and stood there at the threshold. The voice was just inches away from him now. He could literally feel it seeping inside him. Calling out to him. Assuring him.

“Radhe Krishna Radhe Krishna..”

This is not real. This cannot be real.

“Radhe Krishna Radhe Krishna..”

Khushal took a tentative step outside and stepped onto the verandah. He knew where the voice came from - a tiny temple room at his left. Khushal took two big breaths and then finally turned to his right, taking a peek inside the room.

A woman, who had her back to Khushal, was sitting on the floor of the little room. Her eyes were closed. Her hands were folded. In front of her was a tiny temple where an array of little idols of deities was arranged systematically. She sang, as if in a trance.

“Radhe krishna radhe krishna
Radhe radhe krishna Krishna”

Khushal felt he would explode. The world around him had suddenly ceased to exist. His eyes were fixed on the woman. He could look at her from the mirror inside the temple. The early morning sun cast an orangish hue on her face from the open window above her while she kept singing dedicatedly. Her face was pure. Her moist hair glistened. She wore a light-orange dotted saree and was lightly clapping her hands. She looked divine.

This is a dream. Khushal repeated and yet stepped inside the room.

“Radhe Krishna ra…”

She stopped. And opened her eyes. She peered at Khushal from the mirror.

“Did you have your bath?” she asked, pursing her lips.

Khushal could not say anything. He hadn’t heard that voice - that sweet, mellow voice - in twelve years. He simply gawked at her.

She narrowed her eyes. “You do realize that you are looking like a street urchin, don’t you?” she said.

Khushal bent down on his knees, dragging himself close to her slowly.

This is a dream. This is not real.

And yet, he could smell the fragrance of sandalwood emanating from her. He could feel her soft breath…

“Are you all right?” she asked in concern, still looking at him from the mirror in front.

Khushal touched her left arm. It was soft smooth. And real.

“Maa…” he whispered. And then, the thing that was bubbling inside him finally burst open.

Khushal whimpered and held the woman tightly from the back.

“Arre, what happened?” she said in surprise, touching the side his head.

“Maa… Maa…” his voice broke. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t think. He just wanted to live this.

“Is it because I chided you last night for not studying?” she questioned earnestly.

Khushal shook his head. He couldn’t say anything. He didn’t want to say anything.

He just clung on tight to her and wept. It felt as if a lot of the simmering poison inside him was leaking out.

“Chiku, did you have a bad dream?” she asked seriously and patted his cheek lightly.

Her touch. It sent ripples inside him.

Khushal nodded weakly. A very bad dream. A very long and never-ending bad dream.

His eyes were still closed. He still clung on tightly. He still wept.

 “Ah…My Chiku,” she said affectionately, turning around and cupping his face in her palms. “Come here. Don’t you cry now! You are my brave little boy, aren’t you?” She said while wiping his cheeks.

He could see her so close now. Her eyes. Her lips. Her smile. Her breath. Her touch felt so warm. So loving. So real.

“Maa…I…I…” Khushal could not form words as his throat clogged up and tears leaked down his face again. His body was on the verge of convulsions.

She held him lightly and moved his head onto her lap. Then, she began to lightly caress his hair.
Khushal felt lighter, calmer. He wanted to stay right here, in this moment, forever. He did not care if this was a dream. He just wanted to seep in every inch of it.

“You shouldn’t cry on such an auspicious day. We have so much to do today,” she said softly while patting his head.

His head comfortably resting on her lap, and his eyes closed, Khushal could sense her voice reverberating from inside her. It felt reassuring. In all the sheer confusion and tumult that did not make an iota of a sense these past few moments, this was the only thing which really did.

“What…What is today?” Khushal said feebly after finally managing to find his voice.

“Oh, you forgot already?” she said while stroking his hair gently.

“Today is Janmashtami.”

******




“Okay, taste this,” she said, extending her right hand and placing a tiny morsel of the food into Khushal’s mouth.

Khushal munched on the sabudana khichdi merrily, savouring each particle as if this was the first meal he was having. That taste. How he had yearned to feel it all these past years. It felt blissful.

“Nope,” Khushal said, his eyes closed as he relished the last particle of the khichdi. “It is perfect.”

It was mid-day at present and Khushal and the woman were inside a little kitchen. He had forgotten how much he used to love sitting here; discussing anything under the sun with his mother.

The kitchen must have been hardly eight feet in length and was colored bright yellow. A giant steel rack hung on the left wall and there was a little window at its opposite end. Khushal and the woman sat on an elevated L-shaped platform at the center. The woman was busy stirring some sweet-smelling liquid in a large pan on the stove, while Khushal sat comfortably to her left.  

The odd feeling hadn’t quite left him yet. But Khushal was feeling quite fascinated being back in the place after such a long time. He was adapting well. In the last four hours, he had taken his bath, changed into fresh, new clothes and taken a tour of his house half a dozen times. He explored each and every nook and cranny with wonder; discovering little things he had long forgotten. His cricket bat, his carom board, his ‘Tobu’ cycle, his toys, his comic book collection, his favourite chair on the verandah – everything brought back a sea of memories. Everything felt surreal. And yet, it was so real.  

“But why are we having khichdi today?” asked Khushal.

“You are so forgetful,” she said, shaking her head. “We have it every year on Janmashtami.”

“Ah, right,” he mumbled.

Khushal still couldn’t get enough of her face. He kept stealing glances at her while she concentrated on her cooking. He did not want to make his feelings obvious. But he wanted to make the most of this. Whatever this was.  

Khushal heard some noise to his left. He turned to see his father engaged in an animated conversation with a teenage boy at the verandah of their house. Khushal peered closely. He remembered the boy. He was their neighbour, Manish. Khushal’s father was digging inside a pot plant kept on the railing with a little trowel and seemed to be explaining something to the boy.

“Why is Papa spending time with that boy?” Khushal asked. He couldn’t help feel a little pang of envy.

“Because you two,” said the woman while tasting a warm liquid from a steel ladle, “Do not want to spend time with him.”

“That’s not true,” Khushal mumbled, while still glaring at the boy and his father. Both had their heads bowed now and were looking at something inside the pot.

“It is,” she said firmly. “All you guys do is complain about him and always want him to change his lifestyle. And the moment he asks you to accompany him to the bazaar or to fix his motorcycle, you immediately find excuses.”

Khushal was dumbfounded.

“Last evening you and your brother made such a big deal when he wore a worn out shirt while those guests had come over. You should be ashamed of yourself,” she said sternly while looking at him.

Khushal remained quiet.

“He is a very simple man, your father. Learn to appreciate him for what he is, okay? Help him in his simplest of tasks. Spend time with him. Just…Be with him. Sometimes, this is what life is all about. One day you will understand.”

Khushal nodded timidly.

“Now don’t just nod there like a stupid boy,” she said irritably. “Go on. Hadn’t you promised me a sketch of Bala Gopala today? When are you drawing it?”

“Bala who?” Khushal asked confused.

“My God! What has gotten into you today?” she said exasperatedly. “You have been ranting for weeks that you will make a sketch of Bala Gopala on Janmashtami. Now don’t waste time and get working on it.”

“But…But…” he sputtered. He wanted to spend more time with her. As much as he could.

“But…But…” she imitated him while twisting her face.

Khushal chuckled, despite himself. She looked endearing to him as she made that face.

“No buts….I have loads of work today,” she said as she got up. “Make a good sketch. I know you won’t disappoint me.” She said and left the kitchen in haste.

Khushal was left sitting there alone, staring blankly at a square tin can with the words ‘Dalda’ printed in bold green on a yellow-colored sheet at its front. Somewhere outside, a radio played. Khushal suddenly became aware of the rising pitch of its volume.

“And that is an absolutely sensational hundred by Sachin Tendulkar! He is a one-man army, this young man,” said a booming voice.

“What a day this is!” the voice from the radio echoed. “A day that will never be forgotten!”

******

Khushal had forgotten all about his drawing hobby, he realized as he held his hardbound drawing book in his skinny hands. The pages of the book were filled with colourful drawings, mostly of various cartoon characters. Khushal smiled as he looked at a drawing of Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Goofy, grinning widely.

As he kept flipping the pages, Khushal found a printed sheet of paper in the middle of the book, folded neatly. It was the coloured illustration of an infant Lord Krishna – the Bala Gopala – holding a pot of butter. Khushal realized he must have kept this for reference for when he would draw the actual sketch.

It was 3 PM now and Khushal sat by the window on the bed of his room. He had a pillow on his lap, on which he had placed his giant drawing book.

Khushal’s 15-year-old brother stood by the opposite wall, watching the television screen closely with his mouth hanging half-open. The myriad colors of the screen reflected on the thick glasses of his spectacles.

“Oh my god! Change the channel, Maamu. I don’t want to see these animals eating meat,” said a woman’s voice. She sat on the floor of the room and was surrounded by little, glittering ornaments along with a sewing box on her side. Presently, she held a little orange cloth on which she was sewing a sparkling golden hem.

Khushal’s brother just nodded, still gaping at the pack of lions on the screen ravenously devouring an African Impala.

“Mammu….Change it now,” the woman yelled in annoyance.

Khushal’s brother grumbled and finally pushed the button at the bottom of the television screen. The channel changed and music blared out of the speakers.

“Not this one…Something else. Keep changing,” the woman said.

“Okay,” the boy said through gritted teeth.

Khushal chuckled and returned his attention to the drawing book on his hands. He opened the little pencil-box lying next to him and took out a pencil with red and black stripes.

Khushal hadn’t drawn in years. He felt odd. He placed the printed sheet of the infant Krishna on his left side and his hands shook a little as he held the pencil firmly between his right thumb and index finger. He still wasn’t used to the reduced size of his fingers.

But out of the innumerable things that had felt so bizarre and unbelievable for Khushal this day, getting used to the grip of a pencil in much smaller fingers than he was used to, wasn’t a great bother.

He first drew the outline of the chin diligently. His fingers trembled and the line he was drawing tilted a little. Khushal quickly rubbed that part off with an eraser. He took a deep breath and then tried again.

This time the outline of the chin came out well. Khushal then progressed to draw the ears, the forehead, and the nose. It was all coming back to him. Khushal felt a surge of thrill from within as he drew fervently. It was as if he was slowly reviving a lost part of him.

“Stop, stop,” the woman’s animated voice startled Khushal.

“Chiku, see! It’s ‘Mera Saya’,” she said while staring at the television screen in glee. Her whole face had brightened up.

Khushal turned to look at the television. It was a Hindi film where a tall, good-looking man was strolling around a vast, open expanse of a gorgeous-looking palace beside a lake. Khushal had seen this film before.

“See, this film was shot in Udaipur,” the woman said, her eyes twinkled in excitement.

“Yes, Mumma, we know. You’ve told us a thousand times,” said the boy pretending to be irritated, but he too seemed to be fascinated with the visuals.

A song began playing.

Tu jahan jahan chalega...
Mera saaya saath hoga...

The woman started humming the tunes softly. She was completely engrossed. Khushal remembered this was her favourite song.

Mera saaya… Mera saaya…

The woman’s eyes closed and she swayed her head from side to side, rhythmically.

And then she began singing the song clearly. The voice from the television got overcome by her intensity.

Main agar bichad bhi jaon, Kabhi mera gam na karna…
Mera pyaar yaad karke Kabhi aankh nam na karna…

Khushal stared at her; the pencil stuck in between his fingers, the drawing book lying open. Her face was so serene. So focused. She sang as if savoring each word. As if each syllable came from within her.

Tu koi janam bhi lega …
Mera saaya saath hoga..

Khushal was transfixed. Her voice echoed across the room. Across his mind. His soul.

Mera saaya …
Mera saaya…

******

“This looks so beautiful, Maa,” Khushal said.

The woman smiled.

It was evening and the two sat at the right-end corner of a huge living room. A semi-circular area of the floor at the corner had been decorated with patterns of myriad powdered colors. On top of it little clay figures – cows, elephants, deer, trees, little mountains, and a giant snake – had been neatly positioned at different corners. At the center of this area was a little wooden cradle that had a figure of an infant Lord Krishna surrounded by four sari-clad females. Little, multi-colored lights had been hung on the window above the area that illuminated the entire space brightly.

The woman then deftly placed a little peacock feather crown on the forehead of the infant Krishna figure. She looked at the ensemble with satisfaction and then lightly rocked the cradle.

“You know, when I was little, your nanaji would help me set this up on Janmashtami every year in Udaipur,” she said while still gazing at the figure of the infant Krishna. “He was so good at it; especially with the colours. I learned all this from him.”

Khushal nodded. The woman seemed to be lost in her thoughts. He then picked up his drawing book next to his right on the floor and extended it to the woman.

“Maa, I completed the Bala Gopala sketch,” he said coyly. It had taken him a good three hours, but Khushal had finally been able to complete the sketch after several re-corrections. He had been quite satisfied with his effort. After all, he had drawn something after a good fifteen years.

The woman turned to look at the opened page of the drawing book and grinned widely.

“This is absolutely gorgeous, Chiku!” she exclaimed in delight. Khushal could feel that she meant those words.

“See, how talented you are! But you never have confidence,” she remarked in pride. “One day, you will make your talent count and everyone will see it. Mark my words,” she said while lightly stroking her palm across the page.

“Give me your pencil,” she quipped.

Khushal handed her the pencil in his hand and immediately she began scribbling something at the bottom of the page with it. But Khushal did not pay attention to it. His sole focus was on the woman’s face. He gazed hungrily at it, wanting to take in as much as he could. Khushal knew he had very little time left.

As unbelievable as this day had been, Khushal had accepted it as an opportunity. Whatever had happened and was happening did not make sense. But he did not want to expend his time in trying to find reason and logic out of this any longer. He simply wanted to make the most of what he had got.

The woman had finished her scribbling. She got up and then placed the drawing book on the window ledge, under the glittering lights, right above the area she had decorated with the figures and the colors. The drawing of the infant Krishna now looked back at them with his mischievous grin.

“Perfect,” she said with a smile.

Khushal noticed she was draped in a peacock-blue saree. It was one of her favourite ones, he recalled. The multi-colored lights on the window reflected brightly on her glazing face. Khushal was amazed at how content she looked. All day she had been bustling with activity: in the temple room, in the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom and the floors of the house, and then decorating this place so lovingly. She was fasting, too. And yet, her face did not reflect an iota of weariness.

 “Aren’t you tired at all, Maa?” Khushal asked her.

“Hm?” she said, tearing her eyes away from the Krishna sketch.

“Of course, not,” she answered.

“But…”

“Arre, this is how it has been for me always. Don’t you know that already? This is my life,” she cut him short and rocked the cradle of the infant Krishna again.

She was a Sanskrit graduate, Khushal remembered. She came from a prosperous family in Udaipur. But she had adapted to this simple and arduous lifestyle so well and with such dedication. She was carrying on every day. Without any lament. And always with that radiant smile.

“Hey, Maa,” Khushal said. Something suddenly began gnawing at his insides. “Can I tell you something which will not make any sense?”

She turned to him and giggled. “You never make sense anyway.”

But Khushal stared at her, his face absolutely solemn.

“Okay, then. Tell me,” she said earnestly.

Khushal felt heavy. He struggled to form words again.

“About…About ten years from now. You will begin to feel a pain in your chest. Can you…Can you, please…,” a hot pearl of tear trickled down his cheek and Khushal’s lips quivered. “Please just make sure you share that immediately with Papa and Bhaiya?”

She narrowed her eyes and looked at her little boy. “You really are acting weird today.”

But Khushal couldn’t stop himself. “Just pro…promise,” he said, not caring for his tears anymore. “Promise me, you won’t delay.”

She cupped his face in her palms again. “It is because of the dream, right?” she whispered to him.

“Don’t you worry, my Shravan Kumar. Nothing will happen to me,” she said. “I will always stay with you. I promise.”

Khushal felt warm. A part of him desperately wanted to explain everything that had been happening today to her. But he remained silent. Because the other part just wanted to savor this moment without any glitch.

 “No more crying today,” she said while wiping his cheeks. “Come, we have to get ready for the puja. There’s not much time left now.”

******

“When will this be over? I am hungry,” grumbled Khushal’s elder brother. He looked impatient and cranky.

The woman glared at him. “Be quiet,” she said and concentrated on drawing a pair of footsteps with rice flour right at the front of the temple.

Khushal checked the little wall-clock inside the temple room’s wall. It was 11:45 PM.

“Should I place the diyas here?” asked the man. Khushal’s father was helping set up the preparations for the puja – the celebration of Lord Krishna’s birthday – which was to begin at midnight.  He was dressed up in a simple white kurta and looked extremely interested in placing the earthen lamps with precision on both sides of the temple.

The temple glittered magnificently. The deities of all the gods and goddesses inside were decked in a sea of glowing colors but the tiny figure of infant Krishna, placed at the center of the temple, was dressed most regally.

“Chiku, pass me that plate of laddos,” the woman said.

Khushal bent down and picked up the plate with the sweets on it. They smelled delectable.

“Let me have one,” Khushal’s brother swiftly picked one sweet from the plate and devoured it whole.

The woman got up angrily. “I told you not to have it before the puja,” she said fiercely and hit him on the shoulder. He just snorted and enjoyed munching on the sweet.

Khushal checked the watch again. It was 11:50 now.

“Hey, Maa. Can I have one too?” he asked earnestly.

She looked at him and shook her head lightly. “Oh, all right. Both of you are so impious.”

She took a laddoo from the plate and holding his chin lightly, placed it lightly inside his mouth.

“Why do you have to still feed him by your hands?” said Khushal’s brother, clearly annoyed. “He is ten years old now.”

“Shush! He is just a little kid,” the woman said and patted his cheek lovingly.

His brother glowered at him, but Khushal grinned. He savored the sweet. He knew this taste will now last him for a lifetime.

“Okay, now. Touch everyone’s feet,” she ordered quickly and moved to face the temple.

Adjusting her saree properly, she then began clapping and chanting.

Shree krishna sharanam mamah, shree krishna sharanam mamah!
Shree krishna sharanam mamah, shree krishna sharanam mamah!

Khushal checked the watch. The time said 11:57 PM.

Khushal knew this moment would come. He had known this the moment he was told what day this was. He had dreaded this when he was sitting in the kitchen alone earlier in the day. He had feared it when he was drawing the Bala Gopala sketch. It had been licking at him all day, even while he was in sheer wonderment of the happenings.

As the clock ticked along, all Khushal wanted was to stop it. He wanted to stay right here, with these people in the room, forever. He wanted to hold on to them and never let go. But he knew he couldn’t.

“This is the way it is supposed to be…” he recalled the words of the man in the robes.

Khushal took a deep breath and turned towards his brother. He was leaning against the wall of the room, and looking ahead blankly.

Khushal bent down and touched his feet. His brother barely noticed. He seemed to be lost in his own world.

“See you around, Bhaiya,” he said softly to him.

Khushal then turned to his father. He was lightly clapping along, standing side by side with the woman, who continued her chants devotedly.  

Kadam keri dalon bole shree krishna sharanam mamah!
Shree krishna sharanam mamah, shree krishna sharanam mamah!

Khushal bent and touched his father’s feet too. He patted the back of his head with one hand to give his blessings while continuing to look ahead. He looked as simple as ever. Khushal nodded slightly at him.

Yamuna keri paro bole shree krishna sharanam mamah!
Vraj choraasi kosh bole shree krishna sharanam mamah!

Khushal’s heart hammered against his chest as he moved towards the last person in the room. He crouched down on his knees and bent close to her feet.

Kund kund ni seediyon bole shree krishna sharanam mamah!
Kamal kamal par madhukar bole shree krishna sharanam mamah!

Khushal held her feet lightly by both his hands and bent his head down to touch them with it. He closed his eyes.

I won’t let you down. I won’t give up.

Then, very slowly, he touched his lips on her feet.

Sounds of bursting crackers suddenly pierced the air.

Khushal knew his time had come. 

Her hand then lightly caressed the back of his head. Her touch was light and it tingled every part of him. Khushal allowed the tears forming inside to escape his closed eyes one final time. He couldn’t stop them. A solitary teardrop trickled down his nose and fell on the woman’s feet.

Khushal lifted his head. The woman was still staring straight ahead. Her face was aglow. Behind her, from the open doorway, he could see the sky drowned in a sea of firecrackers. She was chanting and clapping merrily.  

Kesar keri kyaari bole shree krishna sharanam mamah!
Akaashe patale bole shree krishna sharanam mamah!

Then, Khushal felt a tug. As if he was being pulled somewhere. He felt drowsy again. His eyes fluttered. He was unable to move.

But he concentrated hard. He concentrated with every particle in his body to ensure that he got one last good look at her face.

Everything else seemed to be ceasing to exist. Everything else became a distant blur. The sounds of the firecrackers became a far-off echo.

All there was left was her face.

And, finally, she turned to look down at him. And smiled.

Even as that pull inside him became stronger. Even as he felt dizzy, Khushal could see her smile clearly.  He could see the twinkle in her eyes. He could see her radiant face.

Khushal smiled back at her.

“Maaaaaaa…..”

He was drowned in his own whisper.

And then there was nothing…

****************************************************************************************************************************************


                                                                                                  Calcutta, Present Day


Khushal Mapara let out a slight grimace as he stepped inside his home. His father held the door ajar for him while he slowly staggered inside. His left hand was covered in a plaster and he limped a little as he crossed the living room.

“Here, let me help you,” his father said trying to hold his hand.

“I am okay, Papa!” he said. “You please rest.”

He seemed to be in a hurry. As if focused on something really important.

Khushal made his way to his room and sat down on the bed to catch his breath. Two full weeks at the hospital had made him a little frail and had drained him off of a lot of energy. But despite a few bruised ribs, a broken elbow and a dislocated knee, his six feet four inch body had made a rather speedy recovery after that car accident a fortnight ago.

Khushal collected himself and then got up carefully. He opened the cupboard right in front of him and began digging for something inside fervently. A couple of bags were flung out and several books followed them. A few minutes later, he extracted a hardbound drawing book from inside. It looked really old and the edges of the hardcover had worn out.

Holding it firmly in his right hand, Khushal seated himself on the bed and proceeded to open the drawing book. He leafed through the pages hurriedly and finally halted at a page in the middle. A sketch of an infant Lord Krishna grinned back at him.

At the bottom of the page, there was something scribbled in pencil. It read:

“My Bala Gopala

By

My Shravan Kumar

17. 08. 1995”


The handwriting was flowery and very tidy. Khushal touched the place where the little note was written with his fingers. A warm smile spread across his face.

Holding the drawing book open, Khushal got up and then placed it strategically at the top of his working table next to the cupboard. He had set it at such an angle that it stood up straight; right beside a photo frame of a smiling woman holding a little boy. Little Krishna now rested comfortably alongside the woman and the boy.

“Perfect,” whispered Khushal with a smile.

There was some movement outside the window next to him and Khushal noticed his father bent down, working on a bunch of plants at their balcony.

The afternoon sun glistened off his spectacles and beads of sweat dripped down his face. But the man did not seem to be bothered. He went about his task dedicatedly.

Something stirred inside Khushal as he observed the man going about his task. Then, very calmly, he limped outside. Quietly he picked up a plastic chair kept in the balcony and seated himself right next to his father.

“Hey, what are you doing outside?” his father exclaimed in surprise on noticing him. He had a steel trowel in his right hand and a mug of water lay next to him on the floor. “You should be resting.”

“It’s all right, Papa!” Khushal said while adjusting his throbbing left leg to give it some space, “I am fine.”

His father looked at him suspiciously.

But Khushal changed the subject. “What is the name of this plant again?” he pointed at a pot straight ahead.

“Oh, this?” his father said. “This is an Aloe Vera plant.”

“What about the others? Tell me about them too,” Khushal asked.

“Well…”

Khushal looked on at his father as he went on to explain in detail the names and properties of each of the half a dozen plants positioned on the floor of the verandah with avid interest.

He knew he had a lot of pending work at hand. Tomorrow, he will call his elder brother in Vadodara and have a nice, long chat with him. Tomorrow, he will begin re-working on his unfinished novel. Tomorrow he will also give another shot to his long-abandoned hobby of drawing. Tomorrow, he will fight again. Tomorrow, he will carry on. And, hopefully, with a radiant glow on his face this time.

But today…

Today he will sit beside his father and listen to him talk all afternoon. And he will try and help him a little in his gardening. Or anything else he would want.

He will spend time with him. He will just be with him.

Because, as someone had told him a lifetime ago, Khushal thought as he looked on at his father pointing at another plant animatedly.

Sometimes…This is what life is all about.


All rights reserved



(End Note: 

I had always imagined how it would be like if I got to spend one more day with my mother who I lost a decade back. This story was born out of that idea. It has been in the making for over six months now. Suffice to say, I have never attempted anything like it before.

Yes, at the core, it is a very simple story. This is not extraordinary story-telling by any means. However, the way I managed to form the plot - the improbability of it - was a bit of a challenge and am quite satisfied with the way I finally did it.  

While writing this, I kind of fell in love with the concept. And I actually had a difficult time letting it go. This one will always remain one of the most special stories I have written.

Lastly, the character of Khushal is me, yes. I changed the name as typing my own name just seemed really odd. Hence I borrowed my late nanaji's name. Somehow, it just felt right for this story.

This is obviously fictional and I have just taken some elements from my life and attempted to concoct a decent and interesting story. I hope some of you would have enjoyed this simple and well-meaning tale.)