Thursday, January 13, 2005

Farewell Across The Past

The following story, I had written many years ago- '87...




1


“Lotus...Thomara...Thomara…” he mumbled in his sleep. Lolita woke up and strained her ears. There he was, murmuring the word "Thomara" in his sleep again. She shook her husband awake. He opened his eyes and looked at her uncomprehendingly. She shook him again and now he was fully awake. She told him that he had been repeating the word “Thomara” in his sleep. He gazed at her and said, “Loli, Thomara means Pankaj -- Lotus.” Seeing her bewildered expression, he explained, “Loli, it is all right. I saw a dream of my college days, that is all.” She nodded pacified, and went back to sleep. He also tried to go back to sleep, but memories kept flooding his mind in torrents. Memories of his college days, fifteen years ago…the distant past, but now suddenly, out-of-the-blue, they had attained amazing clarity. He surrendered helplessly to the whims of his brain and let the scenes of his past flash in his mind's eye…

2

Fifteen years ago, when Prakash had been studying for his medical degree at Hyderabad, he used to feel terribly lonely. True, he did not lack friends in his college, but somehow he felt disillusioned. They all seemed hollow or superficial. He wasn't sure. His friends, he felt, were too engrossed in living the routine life, simply performing the biological act of existence. He sought a friend with whom he could share his thoughts -- abstract, random and confusing, his innermost doubts and fears. His friends could not always understand his track of thinking and at times even seemed to consider him somewhat peculiar. Only Ramesh had been a little different. He craved for a friend, with whom he could unfold himself, with whom he need wear no masks or false appearances and with whom he could reveal his innermost soul spontaneously.
It was at this juncture that Ramesh introduced him to Pankaj. Pankaj…his friend in the truest sense.

3

The old house was majestic. A kind of serenity enveloped the premises. The front door was huge with large brass knobs arranged linearly. Ramesh tugged at a rope that hung on one side of the door and I heard the tinkle of bells far within. I could feel the tension mounting within me. The sight of the well-kept garden did nothing to ease my nerves. I began to regret having agreed to Ramesh's insistence on my coming here. It was obviously too late to make a retreat. I could hear footsteps approaching the closed door.

The door opened, and a woman dressed in a simple, but elegant sari, roughly about thirty-five years old, stood smiling before us. Her name was Pankaj. There was an aura of dignity and charm about her as she led us into the house. We walked through a spacious corridor where we removed our footwear. We were ushered into a spacious drawing room and she asked us to seat ourselves. My face must have reflected my thoughts, for I heard her speaking to me, “Prakash, you seem to like what you see in this room.” Obviously Ramesh had already acquainted her with my particulars, and thankfully, formal introductions were unnecessary. As if by cue, all my apprehensions vanished and I heard myself speaking, “That odd-looking spouted kettle looks classy. Never seen one like it before.” Only for a moment did she hesitate before replying, “That kettle, as you call it, is actually what we call in Kerala, a kindy. It found its way into my drawing room from the closets of my ancestral home in Kerala.


Later Ramesh took me on a tour of the house and I was positively taken in by the quaint d├ęcor. Subtle yet classy. Not a thing that was shoddy or out-of-place. Most of the furniture was cane and the showpieces were either brass or wooden. The walls in every room were bare except for a huge single painting. Some time during our “sightseeing”, Ramesh left and I hardly noticed.


One room, presumably the bedroom was especially beautiful. The walls were a pale pastel-green shade. There was no cot, only a huge circular mattress in the center. A giant mosquito net hooked to the ceiling gracefully draped the bed. There was a circular table in one corner and on it was a book wrapped in brown paper. I opened it and read the name “Zorba the Greek” by Nikos Kasantzakis. I replaced the book in its place.

I looked at a large painting hung on one of the walls. I could not make much sense out of it. It had a rather big eye in one corner and an immaculate lotus arising from muddy water diagonally opposite it. Below the solitary eye, to the side, was a huge open palm and on its side were the words:
“It arises from the muddy soil, but is not contaminated. It aspires high to the daylight, and reveals an immaculate beauty undefied by the darkness it traverses. The noble flower typifies the soul of the perfect man -- Chou Tun Yi -- Confucian Scholar -- 11th century.”
We talked through the night, covering almost every topic under the sun. We talked about the arts, science, literature, politics, philosophy and even relationships. I told her about my mother who died when I was eleven and my father, who had strived to be both mother and father to me. The pleasant fragrance that lingered in her house, the nightly discussions, the painting of the immaculate Lotus, all became a part of my existence. I realized that I had finally found the true friend I had been seeking. Here was someone with whom I could be myself with no fear of impending judgment, with whom I could share my innermost fears and insecurities without fear of ridicule, with whom I need wear no masks. Life, at last I felt, had become meaningful.
I confided in her about my infatuation for one of my juniors at college -- Remitha. She told me about her brief, unhappy marriage. She was twelve years older than I was. What we did not discuss, however, was how she came to be what she was and never did I feel the need to ask her.


Ramesh told me that she had stopped seeing customers and I was not surprised. I didn't ask her about it because, somehow, I knew the reason. I continued seeing her and we were never at a loss for topics to discuss. Sometimes, I felt, even language had become unnecessary for us to communicate. But never did our unique relationship ever come in the way of my academics. Both of us took special care to ensure that it did not.

One day, I was in her room gazing at the painting on her wall, which fascinated me even now. Suddenly, Pankaj asked me, “Prakash, do you know the meaning of Thomara?” I said I didn't. She explained, “It is the Malayalam word for Lotus.”

Meanwhile, Remitha got engaged to Ramesh. I had, by then, outgrown my initial crush on her, but Pankaj liked to taunt me. I passed my exams with a high percentage and my internship period was also drawing to a close. It was soon time for me to bid farewell to college life. I booked my ticket for Calcutta and went to see Pankaj. She asked me that day, “Prakash, why did you have to come here? Why couldn't you have stayed back in Calcutta?” Though she was smiling I could feel the ache in her voice. Trying my best to conceal the emotion from my voice, I answered, “I had to come here to pluck a Thomara.” She laughed at my accented pronunciation. She was aware of the fact that I had joined the Hyderabad Medical College, because it was my father's place of work at the time. After retiring four years ago, he left for Calcutta, while I stayed on to complete my course.

On the day I was to leave for Calcutta, I went to see Pankaj for the last time. For the first time since I had known her, we were at a loss for words. Both of us attempted small talk and failed miserably. Finally, I got up to leave. She asked me to wait and went inside. She came back with a wrapped package and gave it to me. She was smiling but there were tears in her eyes. I mumbled “Thank you for everything,” and stumbled out of the house. My heart was heavy and my vision was blurred...



On reaching Calcutta, I opened Pankaj's gift. It was a smaller version of the painting in her bedroom, but the caption was different -- “Let us think of it as a game. If either one of us ever find ourselves in the danger of death, we will think of the other so intensely that he/she is warned wherever the other may be -- Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantsaki. With best wishes, Thomara”.


4


He tossed around restlessly in his bed. All these years he had avoided thinking of Pankaj. He had trained his mind to veer away from her thoughts these last eleven years, since Lolita became his wife. But, he had taught Lolita the Malayalam term for Lotus. And tonight suddenly the past had caught him by surprise. He got up, feeling uneasy and went up to the painting Pankaj gave him years ago. Under the dim glow of the bedroom lamp, the painting had assumed an ethereal luminosity. He went over the familiar caption once more. A sense of void and a nameless fear gripped him. He looked at the wall clock. It was 3:17 a.m. He tiptoed downstairs, made a cup of black coffee. As he sipped at it, thoughts of Pankaj assailed him. Finally, when he crept back to bed beside his wife, it was almost 4:00 a.m.


The alarm woke him up at 5:00 a.m. His wife was already up, as usual. He sat up on his bed when she came in with his coffee and the newspaper. She smiled at him affectionately and told him, “You were mumbling 'Thomara, Thomara' in your sleep. Was it a dream or what?” Suddenly he remembered last night's dream. He had forgotten all about it.


What had he seen in his dream…he tried to recollect. The picture was vague…yes, now it was coming back to him. He had seen the painting in his dream. The one which Pankaj had gifted him. The solitary eye, the Lotus, the open palm…wait… there was something jarring in the image. The Lotus was not in the muddy water, as in the painting, but in the center of the open palm and there was a teardrop falling from the eye.

He glanced through the paper abstractedly. He got up, bathed, all in a stupor. He kissed Lolita goodbye and left for the hospital. On his way there, he dropped his children Prashanth and Pranothi to school.


He was walking to his cabin in the hospital, when he had to give way to a shrouded body being carried on a stretcher. He reached his cabin and set about his daily routine of examining the outpatients. He worked till noon but the nagging uneasiness persisted. Finally, he decided to leave for home. He called the nurse on duty and informed her. As she was about to leave, on a strange impulse, he asked her a question. His own voice sounded strange and alien, “Sister, whose body was being carried to the mortuary when I arrived this morning?" The nurse was confused first and then suddenly remembered, “An accident sir. A car collided into a parked truck. No trace of alcohol. It was diagnosed as a case of cardiac arrest in the post mortem. A Ms. Pankaja. No surname...nothing. Fifty-two years of age, as per the driving license. She was driving. No passengers. A torn admission pass for the art exhibition at the Tagore Arts Gallery was also found along with her belongings. It happened at about 3:00 a.m.”


He did not hear the nurse leave. He did not know how or when Pankaj came to be in Calcutta. All he knew was that there was a queer pain in his throat, and that the ink had blotched on the paper on his desk. But Pankaj had kept her promise; she had remembered to bid farewell.