Too Tragic to Answer
By Atulananda Goswami
Translation: Khanindra Pathak and Jugal Kalita
"Dhon! Can you come here for a moment please?"
"Dhon is not home, Grandpa. He has gone to the pharmacy to get some medicine." Rumi replied as she came out of the house hearing her grandfather's voice.
"What about Bapai? Where is he?"
"He is in the backyard. Do you want to speak with him, grandpa?"
"Not really! You yourself can help me. I need a smoke. Can you get me an ember from the kitchen for my water pipe. By the way, where is everybody? I can't seem to find anyone when I need help."
"How can that be, grandpa? Everyone is home. Who were you looking for?"
"Don't worry! You can go in now." Silently Rumi took the bowl of the water pipe and went inside.
In fact Dhon had prepared the tobacco himself for his father and left home only after putting the pipe in the old man's hand. Dhon was in a hurry. Amol had gone to the pharmacy to get medicine, but had forgotten to take the prescription for a new injection. So, Dhon wanted to meet him at the pharmacy before he headed back home. It was urgent.
Perhaps seeing his grandson run around frantically, the old man forgot all about his pipe. So the fire in the bowl got put out. In addition, the whole place seemed to have become too cold for him. He felt as if vast emptiness was starting to devour him in spite of the fact that the house was literally overrun by people. It had started resembling a busy market place. In the mansion-like house everyone seemed to be going about business in silence. Sitting on the front porch, the old man felt all alone.
He did not feel comfortable even though he was lounging on the easy chair with layers of soft rubber cushion. It is a chair that Abhoy had especially bought for him. A while back somebody had brought him a cup of tea and had left it on the small stool by his side. He drank only a little of it. The rest was too cold by now. There was a pile of newspapers lying near him. He felt they contained only cold and heartless news!
Rumi came out blowing the fire in the bowl with her mouth. Fitting the bowl to the rest of the water pipe, she started to walk back inside. He asked her, "Has the visiting doctor prescribed any new medicine?" The resentment in his voice that had come from being ignored and uninformed had subsided. In addition, he was careful not to express the slightest weakness in his manly conduct to anyone!
"Oh, yes! He wanted to give grandma another injection."
"Has the doctor left already?"
"No, he is still inside, by grandma's side."
"Go tell him to say hello to me on the way out."
The young children in the house did not know what the commotion was all about. Like every other day, they were playing on the big front yard. But even they were afraid of approaching their genial grandfather. It was as if somebody had instructed them not to disturb him.
"How is she, Doctor?" The old man asked as soon as he saw the doctor come out with his bag in hand. His voice had its usual gravity.
"The situation is under control. There is nothing to worry, Sir." The doctor lied to him. ``I have given her another injection. I want to try a more general treatment."
The old man had nothing to say. The doctor also had nothing to say. He left saying, ``Good bye, Sir." Neera, his middle daughter-in-law brought his afternoon tea out to the porch. Rumi brought the pill he took daily at this time. He drank the tea without looking at anyone. Rumi continued to stand by his side. He requested her, "Come on Rumi! Walk me inside." Supported by Rumi on one hand and the walking stick on the other, he walked inside slowly. There was almost no room in the big house for him to enter. A large number of neighbors and relatives were sitting everywhere and lazily chatting in hushed voices, waiting for the inevitable to happen. Probha, his oldest daughter, who had arrived the previous day, was gently stroking her sick mother's forehead. Rumi's mother was trying to tidy up the place a little bit as he walked in. His youngest son Abhoy, a professor at a local college, was trying to give some medicine to his mother. Seeing his indisposed father walk in with his trembling steps he was a little annoyed. ``Father, you don't have to run around the house worrying about mother! The whole family is here. We are taking very good care of mother. If you trip, fall down and break a bone or two, we will have another problem to worry about."
The old man stopped by the door for a moment. His wifeÕs eyes were closed. Her face was expressionless. He wanted to stare lovingly at the shriveled face of his dear wife and admire it for some time. He was very sad and was about to cry out, "Oh dear! What has happened to the beautiful face I always knew!" But he did not express his emotion because by tradition a man does not divulge such tender feelings. Especially, when there were women present. His sons and daughters were there too! His grand-children were all there! He could never break down in front of people! It would be very inappropriate, and in fact, cowardly to show any sign of weakness in such circumstances.
Finding nothing to say he asked, "What food has the doctors said she can take? Is she having barley soup?"
"Oh, yes, the doctor said barely soup is OK. But he also said it should be very dilute." The reply did not come from anyone in the family. Of all people, it came from Ratna's mother, a neighbor. She spoke with a low voice after drawing down her veil, as a show of respect.
"Father, would you like to sit by mother for a while?," his eldest daughter Probha asked. The old man was expecting somebody would ask him that. But if he sat there, the others would have to leave to give them privacy. One woman had already suggested to place the chair a little closer to the bed. But Abhoy spoke with finality, "Father does not really have to sit here. He has nothing to worry. We all are here taking care of mother. Moreover if he sits on that wooden chair, it may hurt his back and bottom."
The old man did not want to argue with his grown son in front of everyone. He walked back to the porch. His steps were slow but steadier than before. Rumi gently helped him sit on the special chair and quietly left.
The man did not feel like sitting on the chair all alone in the porch. His mind was restless. There was no peace in his mind. As he was unable to do anything he wanted due to his advanced age, he wished he was younger, less dependent on others, and more active. He sat patiently for sometime. A few neighbors stopped by him to say hello. They did not speak much though.
After a while Probha's daughter Mamoni, who was studying for an M.A. in Guwahati arrived on a rickshaw. "Grandpa!'' She came in running and hugged her grandfather. She had come home after a long time. She had become more beautiful than ever. Her stylish blouse exposed her navel area, her silk sari frequently slipped from her shoulders, and her colorful ornaments dazzled on her ears and neck. She had become very attractive. Her mannerisms and style of talking had also become more urbanized. She had changed a lot from the last time he saw her. But even she did not divulge to him that she had come to see her grandmother one last time after getting an urgent letter from Rumi. The grandfather kissed her on the head and said, ``I am glad to see you! Everyone is here. Now, go inside and meet them."
Amol had returned by this time. Seeing him, the old man called out to him ,"Come here! Walk me to my bed." The father could not walk of his own any more. He did not have enough strength to walk around for more than a few steps. The walking stick alone was not sufficient to balance his weight. He needed somebody to hold him as he walked. He also had constant high blood pressure. So he was very careful. That is why Abhoy forbade him from walking around. Abhoy did not even think he should sit by his dying wife lest it affected his very weak and fragile body. Abhoy was always overly concerned about the well-being of his father's health. He was very protective. Sometimes it required Abhoy to be harsh with his father for his own good. Therefore, the old man went straight to bed.
The old woman had been unconscious since morning. Urgent messages had been sent to everyone in the close-knit extended family. None of the sons went to work that day. The middle son Amiya was a contractor. He never had any time to stay home for long. Even he had not left home today. The three daughters had arrived from around the state. Finally, Mamoni had also just come. She was the last one of the close family to come home. Everybody knew the old woman did not have more than a few hours left. Only the old man seemed to be in total darkness about the sad inevitability. However, in spite of the fact that nobody told him anything clearly, he understood that the day was ominous. Lying on the bed the old man started musing over his sick wife. Was there anything she missed in her life? Did she want to tell him something in private? According to the people by her bedside, she could have no regrets in life. Her life was full and productive. Nobody could build a more well-rounded family as she and her husband did. She never had to struggle for anything. Her whole life was like an well-oiled machine. All their children were now established in society. Their grown children had taken charge of the well-being of the extended family. They revered their parents. They took rather very good care of everyone. How could his wife be sad?
In spite of all that, perhaps she had something in the depth of her mind she wanted to tell him now! Perhaps she wanted to see her beloved husband alone one last time! But, had she expressed her wish, everyone would have known about it. They would have carried out her wish right away.
"Grandpa!" It was Mamoni. "What, my darling?" A drop of tear slipped out from his eyes. It was dark so Mamoni could not have noticed it. "I see! You are already asleep."
Mamoni was the oldest daughter of his oldest daughter. That is why she loved him the most. Almost leaning against the grandfather, she said, "Come on Grandpa! Let's go and sit by granny!" The grandfather also wanted to get up and get another glimpse of his wife. But he controlled himself. Mamoni also wanted to say, "Maybe, granny wants to see you." But she did not say it aloud. The grandfather consoled her, "I think there is no need for me to hobble around. Everybody is very concerned about her."
"How does that matter! Please come with me. The guests have all left." Actually, some people were still there. The grandmother had come back to her senses for a few moments. Probha felt she was looking for her husband when she murmured something. So she asked her daughter to fetch her grandfather. The night was very critical for her mother. With his trembling steps the grandfather walked in with MamoniÕs help. Probha was sitting on the bed by her motherÕs side. Pronoti, another one of their daughters was also there holding her baby on her lap. Probha pulled the chair closer to the bed and put a soft pillow on it to make it more comfortable. The old man sat down slowly. His eyes were fixed at his wifeÕs face. She was silent, motionless, almost unconscious. Her old and tired husband intently started staring at her face without batting an eyelid. He did not find a single word to say aloud. The history of past fifty years of their married life was written on her pale face. Her face symbolized the sorrows and happinesses of the past half a century. The old man started reminiscing the memorable days of their life together. Probha felt very sorry for her parents. Pamee, another one of their granddaughters came in. Seeing her sorrowful grandfather staring at his dying wife, she could not stay inside. Probha also went out to dry her dripping eyes. Mamoni was leaning on her grandfather's chair. She too stepped back a little further.
The old man forgot the presence of others for a brief moment. After some time he stretched out his feeble hand. Perhaps he wanted to caress her gentle face as a sign of enduring affection. But he did not. Slowly, he touched her forehead and addressed her in a low voice, "Toru! Toru"
At the sound of her name, the frail woman suddenly woke up. Nobody had addressed her by her name during the last four decades! Those around her addressed her as a mother, a grandmother, or an aunt. As a result her real name, Toru, had almost been forgotten. Oh, after what a long period of time did her husband address her by that name!!
The ill woman suddenly opened her eyes at the sound of her almost unspoken name. Tears rolled down her two eyes. Thousands of words wanted to spring out from the depth of her heart. Thousands of words wanted to fight with the tongue to come out together. At last with a feeble voice she managed to utter a few words, "Have you had your afternoon tea?" And, she could speak no more.
"I have had my tea, dearest Toru! How are you?" The grandfather too couldn't say anything more. His lost his voice. Her eyes closed again. Two drops of tear came out of her eyes. They looked like tiny balls of gem in reflected light. Very gently, the husband wiped the two drops dry. The woman's body and mind became numb once again.
Mamoni ran out of the room and announced to everyone that her grandmother had regained consciousness! Everybody rushed in at the encouraging news. Probha also came in and stood by the bed. She called in a low voice, ``Ma! Ma!" She was unconscious again.
The old man had grasped the top of the upright walking stick with his hands, then rested his chin on the hands, and was staring at his wife's face. He was looking at the mark of vermilion on her forehead, the sign of married status for a Hindu woman. It was shining brighter than ever. Probha had put make-up on her mother's face every day she had been lying in bed. She had done it today also.
It was the old man's habit to have a cup of tea every afternoon. Along with that he took a vitamin pill every day for the past two years. The doctor had prescribed three pills a day. The afternoon pill was always given to him by his wife. Every afternoon he would sit on the front porch. His wife would put on nice clothes, put modest make-up along with a mark vermilion on her forehead, and sit down on a small stool by her husbandÕs side. They would chew betel nut together. She would also bring the bottle of medicine Usually the youngest daughter-in-law would bring tea for the in-laws. The old man liked his tea with a lot of milk and a lot of sugar. He would wait till it was lukewarm before he would start drinking. Before he started drinking his tea, his wife would give him his pill. He would take the pill along with tea.
During this period they took stock of the daily events. Usually they discussed which grandson needed a hair cut, who had to get to the dentist, who was punished by his mother for some wrongdoing, which child had been detected with stomach problems, and who needed a new writing slate for school. They discussed such matters in detail. In between the grandfather read the newspaper. Sometimes he read a few items of news aloud and explained them to his wife.
They usually sat together for a long time. During that time Mantu, Mina and the other children played in the courtyard. If someone needed to pee, he would come near them to get the pant buttons opened. The grandfather would then keep his newspaper aside and peer over his spectacles and would make fun of the grandmother "Be quick, mother! Otherwise, he will pee in his pants!"
The grandmother would leave the porch to go inside only if it was absolutely necessary. She entertained some of the guests on the porch itself. She welcomed them there, and later sent a message inside for tea for them. Rumi and Amol also sometimes stopped by the porch to take a piece of betel nut from them. They would ask her sometimes to do some small chores for them. The old woman had been unable to sit on the porch for the past month. Her husband sat there all by himself. He did not make any exception in his daily routine. If that happened, his oldest son Amol would not spare anyone. His wife had been sick. It started with high fever. There were a few other diseases of old age also. Her health gradually deteriorated and had reached today's critical state. Everyone suspected that she was not going to come out of it alive. Nobody wanted her to suffer also. She was quite old. Everybody wanted her to die happily without much pain. In the past couple of days, all the relatives had been informed. Some had already come. One of Mamoni's brothers who was still not home would arrive tomorrow. Everyone suspected the worst except the grandfather.
Now since the old woman wanted her husband by her side, the children brought their father to their motherÕs side. Many times earlier, the grandfather himself wanted to sit down by her side and massage and caress her head and her face. He had wanted to talk to her alone.
But he was not allowed to do what he wanted to. If he had to do the job of nursing his sick wife, what would the other people in the family do? Three sons, three daughters-in-law, two daughters, a number of grandchildren, and many servants! What would all these people do?
The old man wanted to ask his wife on death bed, if he did anything terribly wrong during the fifty years of their married life, and if there was something she wanted, but he could not provide. He felt guilty at not being able to do that. When his wife was conscious and a little better, the place was like a zoo with her well-wishers and relatives. He never got an opportunity to sit by her side. Nobody thought it might be something important to her. Whenever he limped in himself, he had to ask a few unnecessary things, make small talk and quickly leave the room filled with numerous attendants all the time. Even now he wanted to caress his wife and rest her head on his chest. He wanted to stroke her gray hairs and plead with her "Toru, I want to leave the world with you. Please take me along!" But the overbearing tradition and culture inhibited him. His wife was now unconscious. She might never gain her senses. How was it possible? The old lady was preparing to leave this world without the beautiful family she created herself. How could she spurn the care, the love and the affection of her many grandchildren? And what about her husband of five long decades? Had she not thought of his emotions, his desire to be with her for eternity? "Ma!" Probha addressed her once again. She had regained her consciousness! It seemed she wanted to say something important. It seemed she was struggling to open her eyes.
Hearing the good news, the doctor stopped by once again. He held her hand and felt her very weak pulse. The old woman wanted to raise her hand and in great exasperation shake her pointed fingers at the sea of people besieging her and admonish them, "All of you, go away! I don't need you all the time. Let me be with my husband, in private." But she did not have the strength to say it in so many words. Nobody understood the desperate signals of her hands. Instead of going away all came closer. The old woman wanted to say to her husband "Where were you all these lonely days? All these days you never came to me by yourself even once and sit by me?''
``Now I am about to die. I know it will be difficult for you without me. But what can I do? I can't do anything to ease your pain! Please don't be upset with me for not being a good wife, and for dying before you!" But, the old woman could not muster the language and the strength to say all that. After a while, looking at her husband, she struggled to feebly pronounce, "Your feet!" Nobody understood whe she wanted to convey. Everybody looked at each other. However, the mother of the oldest daughter in-law Rumi, was able to guess it correctly. But she did not have the heart to say it loudly and announce it to everyone. Belatedly, Probha also understood what her mother meant. She came to her father and respectfully touched his feet and then carried that sense of reverent connection to her mother's forehead. But the old man did not see the events happening in front of his own eyes. He did not understand anything. He did not notice the people around him who were counting time. His face became motionless, it did not show the slightest emotion. He was staring at his wife with deep attention. It was as if his still head was glued to the top of his walking stick. Without his knowledge, tears rolled down from his eyes.
Pamee is the youngest of the old couple's daughters. She was very observant. She noticed when the doctor silently left without saying a word. Then she noticed the tears in her father's eyes. She could not hold down her own tears. She started crying loudly. Her father was startled by her shriek. Subconsciously he collected all his strength, and stood up impulsively. Then he asked loudly, "What's the matter, Toru? Do you want to tell me something?" His frail legs could not support his weight. Before Amiya could grasp him, he fell, hit his knees on the side of bed, and fell on top of his wife. There was a sudden commotion. Pamee was dumb struck. Probha tried to stop weeping by biting into her clothes.
* * *
When the old man woke up, Dr. Baruah was feeling the pulse on his left hand. The man was not aware of his surroundings. Probha was sitting nearby. Mamoni was massaging his legs. Abhoy and Amiya were also in the room.
After opening his eyes the old man was perplexed for a moment about his whereabouts. He tried to figure out what had transpired during his sleep. He could not make out anything. During the last fifty years, he had been confused many times. Many times he had not found answers to difficult questions, and solutions to sticky situations. At such times, he always turned to his wife, ``Well Toru! What will we do now?". If she knew an answer, she volunteered it. Otherwise they would discuss it together and find an acceptable solution. Today also, he instinctively sought her wisdom. After a long silence he asked, ``Well, Toru! What is happening? What should we do now?," expecting her to be at his bedside. Probha looked the other way to hid her face and started weeping. Mamoni momentarily forgot to rub his foot and looked down to the floor. Rumi and Rumi's mother also started crying behind the door. They did not want to come because they looked shabby due to the wake and subsequent mourning.
Though there were no tears in their eyes, Abhoy and his brothers did not come forward to see their father right away. They had not shaved in three days due to their mother's death, following traditional Hindu customs! If their wizened father, with his debilitated health, suddenly grasped the untold news of his dear wife's death, he would definitely suffer the most trauma tic shock of his life. It could very well lead to another disaster in the family so soon after their mother's death.
This is a translation of an Assamese short story called `Niruttar', Axomiya Premar Galpa published by Lawyers book stall. Khanindra Pathak is a doctoral student at the Imperial College, London, U.K.