He woke up. His whole body was wet with sweat and his eyes were burning. He got up and switched on the light. The time was seven thirty and it was pitch dark outside. He stepped out, washed his face and peeped into the next room. Maami and Kanti were sitting and sipping tea.
"Its really too much to bear. I hope she dies, it will be better for her as well as us," Kanti had started weeping.
He stepped out of the house. The sky was overcast and the humidity was oppressive. He walked towards Gandhi Hospital. There was no one guarding the gate. He walked in and entered the ward. The stink in the ward was nauseating. It clung like a blanket in the air. He reached her bed. She was exactly in the same position. Her eyes were closed. In one corner Narasimha was sitting and dozing.
As he sat on the stool beside her bed, he could hear whispers:
"He is her son. He has come to see her for the first time."
"How ungrateful and selfish these rich people are. Had my Mallesh been alive he would never have left my bedside."
The poor woman has been suffering for so long and this wretched fellow has found the time just now."
"He looks quite rich and see how he has left his mother to rot in this hospital."
"Yes he could have kept her in a nice and clean nursing home."
"Sh! He is looking. I think he understands Telugu."
He looked up. Four old women were sitting huddled up on two beds like crows taking shelter from pouring rain. He was too tired emotionally to even feel anything. He felt completely drained out.
He looked at her. The proud, the beautiful, the gorgeous, the elegant, the graceful, Mrs Deepti Kumar was now a dirty, ragged bundle of flesh and bones. She reminded him of the pictures of famine in Ethiopia, he had seen on TV. She looked like one of the beggars who regularly line up at the entrance to the Hanuman Temple opposite the Gandhi Hospital.
The woman who had once hoarded her love, her affection, her time and then rationed them as if distributing alms to the orphans on Diwali was now lying in a crumpled heap in front of him. She was fighting a last battle with life and struggling to survive so that she could see him and hear him say a few words to her. The woman who had systematically and meticulously destroyed his childhood bit by little bit, who had mauled his sentiments, trampled on his feelings, made him a n emotional cripple for life was now lying helpless like a mutilated doll. Ever since she left he had always wanted to torture her, lacerate her feelings, win points in endless battles with her. He had wanted to destroy her, tear her to shreds emotionally. He had now succeeded in all this. He had won every battle of egos and every war of emotions. And yet.... and yet he did not feel a sense of triumph. There was no elation, no euphoria only a sense of complete loss, utter dejection. He felt hollow and empty.
As he stared at her a million tiny fragments from his past hurtled by. Yet in this collage of memories was there a single frame which was happy.....yes there was one.....
It was Diwali and they were in the garden bursting crackers. He must have been around nine then. Babuji was lighting the rockets while Kanti and he were burning the less dangerous crackers. Maa was sitting in a corner watching them. That evening she had to spend at home since they could not risk going out on scooter.
Suddenly a fire cracker- a bomb landed close to her. Everyone was too busy to notice. Aniket reacted quickly. He lunged forward picked it up and was about to hurl it when it burst in his hands. His hand was on fire. It was as if a million tiny needles were piercing his palm and gouging out tiny bits of flesh. He screamed and fainted.
When he woke up, his head was in Maa's lap and she was crying.
"See, Saheb how much Aniket loves me." She hugged him close.
Aniket closed his eyes. He wanted to savour this sensation for as long as possible. He knew if he opened his eyes this dream would shatter.
An hour later she gently shook him and asked," Aniket, wake up beta. Would you like something to eat. You must be hungry."
"He mumbled something but didn't open his eyes. Even though he was famished he kept quiet. He didn't' want to lose the warmth of her embrace for anything in the world. He lay there for he couldn't remember how long. When he woke up he was in his bed. Was it all a dream? He looked at his hand. It was bandaged. No it had actually happened. He had spent almost the whole night in his mothers arms. That means she really loved him. Otherwise would she have cuddled him for so long inspite of being unwell?
He leaned forward and placed his hand on her forehead. She opened her eyes and looked at him. For a split second her eyes lit up with the same intensity which had always fascinated him and then went dead. Her lips trembled and it seemed she was saying something. He leaned forward and placed his ears near her lips.
"Ani....I..I am so...sorry," she whispered.
This was the first time she had called him Ani. She had always called him Aniket though he had longed to hear her call him Ani.
He kissed her forehead and her eyes. His lips were wet with her tears. She raised her arms and pulled him down with surprising strength. He lay like that with his lips on her cheeks for, he did not remember how long. It might have been a few seconds or minutes or even an hour.
Suddenly he opened his eyes. She was saying something. He tried to concentrate.
"Ani...you remember the poem...Mother ....can you please...just once...
Slowly he began reciting:
"Look at my Mother
So pretty and fair
Look at her dark beautiful hair
Look at her big lovely eyes
As wide as the open skies......
If ever I have loved....
He suddenly felt her grip slacken and at that instant he knew it was over.
He gently removed her arms from around him and got up. He looked at her. Her eyes were closed. There was a hint of a smile on her lips and her face seemed calm . In fact he had never seen such a serene expression on her face. He kissed her eyes and turned around. He saw Kanti standing and l staring at him. Tears were streaming down her face. He looked at her and slowly shook his head. As he stepped out he could hear Kanti screaming.
Outside it was pouring, he started walking out. The rainwater was suddenly tasting salty......