Something had woken me up and I was shifting uncomfortably in the cot for the last half an hour, unable to sleep. It was uncharacteristically calm and cool for a mid-June midnight. I was used to sleep more than 12 hours through the day but it seemed like I had woken up after a hundred years, filled with energy I had never experienced in decades. After what seemed like millions of grating seconds, my patience wore thin and I lazily opened my eyes. I filed this away as another peculiarity of my old age.
Above me a lone cloud was running across the moon trying to conquer the night sky. And there were much (much) more stars crowding the span of it than I last saw it yesterday. It almost seemed like I had travelled through time back to my childhood; after all, it is usual at such age to have random flashbacks to the past. Finally deciding that I was in a dream, I kept laying in the bed and mentally recalled the big stars and small ones around it. The pole star shone bright enough to burn a hole through the black. I was always able to discern craters on a moon, I could see faint mountain ranges now. And stars turned on and off for what seemed like infinity. The time had paused for me. Generally at the ripe age of 80, the world stops surprising you. It becomes a series of multiple predictions and déjà vu: however, that night was unlike anything that was seen or heard. Nyaasa was often chided by her mother jumping in my lap lest I break a bone or two, and I had to predict whether I needed to use toilet before I felt pressure in order to make it in time across the verandah: yes, I was quite old but not at this moment. I felt like Nyaasa herself. My wide eyes stared at the star-studded velvet so ferociously and for so long that I stopped blinking. Literally.
Strange was the day today. There were no tears in my eyes even though I never shut them. When I did try, I couldn’t. I was able to sense something at the end my nose. It disconcerted me. Stars shine, night is black and eyes have to close. It felt as if I was staring at everything and an unjustified wonder filled me. I tried to fulfil my curiosity and craned my neck to the left and … shit! Another shot of pain ran through my body like a current – much stronger than before, yet it passed away as easily. Still as a frightened bird, I carefully avoided all kinds of movements. The world that came back in focus seemed much sharper than usual. I was pleasantly surprised. My eyes were not just a pair of olden eyes anymore; they were a pair of brand-new Discovery night vision cameras. Dim moonlight was enough to make out the rustling leaves of the Peepal tree across the verandah and a pitcher appreciating the wind, nodding along with the wind. To my surprise, the pitcher start rolling in front of me. A streetlight twinkled far away through the leaves as they trembled and shook violently. The tree couldn’t put up anymore and suddenly a loose twig broke off from the crowd and flew a little distance away. Yet, I could neither hear the howling of air or rustling of tree, worse I couldn’t even feel the wind. To me wind was dead. I was watching a muted horror movie where the only person horrified was me.
That was when I realized I was not only able to open my eyelids for extended periods of time but rather became unable to blink. Even without tears, I did expect my eyes to close at some point of time. Neither did I, or they, tried though. When I consciously closed them, again, there was – again – something blocking their tiny path. Something was adamantly stuck and when my right hand rose involuntarily to remove it, multiple terror waves struck my body. My limp hand fell back the few inches it could muster. I shuddered; bees stung me all over the body. I am unlucky enough to experience a real electricity shock years back: it was worse than that if my feeble memory served me right. I discarded any more attempts of locomotion and actively kept myself dead as a log. Peepal seemed more alive than me. I couldn’t even dare to flick my pupils. Cold and stiff, I laid there watching the sky turn purple and the twinkling stars slowly losing their sheen. Pole star was still bright and alive. Experience told me it too would disappear in the dawn of the rising sun but today I couldn’t sure about anything.
Was this how polio strikes? Or maybe it was coma. I kept my body as lifeless as I could, but my mind was blazing. What if they think I was dead and burn me alive. I wanted to shake my theories off, but the raw fear of the limitless pain grabbed me. I settled on waiting; the ultimate weapon of choice for a crinkled old woman. Soon, my daughter-in-laws would get up for morning preparations any second now. They can help me get up – a lump died in my throat when I stopped myself from gulping at the thought of any movement. The east was turning pink, the sky was blue. The day seemed clearer than anything I had seen. This was the most real dream I had ever seen. Everything seemed as usual but brighter and clearer. As for me, that’s where my dreams turned bizarre. Here I was, an old woman who seemed to be sleeping with a strangely twisted neck to the left and eagerly staring at the door, dead in front of her, for someone to pass.
I was snapped out of my trance when Mamta stepped into verandah. I couldn’t track time but sun was above my head and tingling my cold body with heat. I would have enjoyed it if not for today. Mamta – my younger daughter-in-law – sleepily trudged towards the bathroom at the other side. Until I could defrost myself, she had already crossed my sight. I had been unprepared and part of me even thanked my lucky stars – somewhere among the numerous that I had seen before – for getting more time out of trouble, however a steely resolve gripped me now. I had collected myself eagerly waiting for Mamta to return. It was the peak of anticipation but the ground beneath me crumbled when she did come back. The burden in my throat was getting heavier. Two seconds passed after one and more. Just when I saw Mamta climbing the stairs into the main house, sans any abandon, with all the energy I could muster, I cried out at last.
At least I tried to. My head had throbbed when I gathered myself, my lungs burned when I forced air in them. Yet, lashes and slashes of excruciating pain resulted in mere gasps of empty air? I wanted to die then and there. I was motionless, I was voiceless. I was a live statue peeking at my own house – the ultimate security watch. Alas, I couldn’t raise an alarm if somebody had broken in. The hope left me like a bird from her parents’ nest; when I look back in time, it was the best decision for the moment. It prepared me for the worse that had yet to come. I was observing Mamta doing her daily chores – a towel wrapped around her head and a loose kurta hanging onto her, she ran away and back – to wake up children of the house, to turn on the motor, to bathe, to pray, to fill up buckets, to move the dustbin outside. She was, and still is, an industrious woman. She rises first thing in the morning and performs all her duties without braking a single sweat. She darted in and out of my view so much that I couldn’t help tracking her through my line of sight and guessing which way would she enter it again. A little entertainment in my miseries. She was so engrossed in her work that she didn’t even throw a glance towards me; she was a robot going through her motions mechanically and efficiently.
I just lied there watching the activity around me with a strange passive eye. The movements turned into commotion when Rupa, my elder daughter-in-law, entered with all the three children of house to prepare them for school. Mehak and Shyamal seemed to be sleeping on legs and shakily lazed towards the bathroom. On the other hand, Nyaasa was a world onto herself. She picked the broken twig, kicked the pitcher and generally undid everything her mother had so carefully done in the last hour or so. She was the only daughter of Rampann, my second son, and Mamta. Nyaasa’s crazy streak and naughtiness was the last thing that I could expect from the seed of that pair, yet here she was. Rupa was the only person in house who could control her and she was nowhere to be seen right now. My family was out in full force today and it warmed my heart. Chill, however, swept me when Nyaasa threw the stick away and buzzed towards me. ‘Don’t touch me, please!’ I prayed to God feverishly. Strange as she was, Nyaasa was waving her hand over my right ear and muttered something that my ears couldn’t hear and eyes couldn’t comprehend. My eyes were open, she would have been confused why I was sleeping with open eyes. I was delighted however when I noticed that I had been moving my pupils and still it didn’t hurt me. Hope.
Rupa came from behind and shooed her away to the bathroom. The other two children sat on the stairs and bumped heads into each other in half-sleep. Nyaasa flashed towards them and like pigeons they scattered away frightened. A commotion ensued with Rupa at the centre picking one child and threatening other. My family was out in full force today and I was laughing inwards at the drama they created. Rupa managed to shoo the trio away and halted in front of me. It amused me when her casual eyes thinned in concern and immediately bulged. And Rupa started shaking me. All hell broke loose. Oh God! I don’t want to live that part again, ever. It stung me all over the body. I closed my eyes, it tormented me. I opened them, it increased a notch or two. ‘Silly girl! Go bring somebody rather than kill your mother-in-law.’ Shake, shake, shake, she shook me several times. She raised my hand up, and I died several times then and there, just to live again to bear such pain. My lungs were too heavy and empty to call her. I wanted to faint but the pain wouldn’t let me.
She dropped me and ran away somewhere inside the house. ‘Pray keep her there and don’t bring me near her!’ I cried with relief but tears betrayed me. Rampann and Sampann, my eldest, came running out to me. Rupa and Mamta followed them behind, picked up all the children, shoved them inside the house and rushed back to me. I was thrown into darkness when my family encircled me. They were pondering something in my right ear. Rampann murdered me when he held my wrist and played with my ear for quite some time. I was so used to pain now that I had become curious. There something going on that mismatched my old brain. The sun resumed burning me with its rays when everybody thankfully stopped poking me around and pulled back from me. Mamta sat on the stairs shouting her hearts out. I being deaf as I had become, she sounded like a distant muffled radio. Rupa was consoling her and seen to be sobbing hysterically. As for my sons, they were out of my sight. I hoped they were calling ambulance as soon as possible.
My mind had started diverting to other places now. When people are crying for you, you can enjoy a morbid fact that people care for you. Maybe our body tries to cope with the pain, or it is just you being sadist. Some time passed as I generally overlooked the brouhaha around me. When a stretcher came into my view; I was more than relieved. Finally. I had assumed my people would just cry till the sunset like I’m dead. I would declare myself dead too, but the fact was that I was numb with pain right now and my pupils were flitting across the whole landscape. Above the crowd, Nyaasa and Shyamal were peeking innocently from a window in the house. Somebody better close it, I thought, since didn’t want to witness such a scene. My family was out in full force today and it saddened my heart to no end.
The stretcher was put in front of my eyes and a hospital staff reached a hand to grab me. I was prepared for the pain and managed to curl my toes. But rather than grabbing my head or body, he magically moved his arm through me. And it stayed there for a second; I imagined him as wrangling my internal organs. Just as I was stunned, he took his hand back and something came out of me. The familiar heart wrenching pain was followed by a real, physical object, a body. And – strange as it sounds, crazy as it seems – the body was me; somehow, I was taken out of me. My body on stretcher was lying in front of me on the ground. But here was I, fully conscious. She looked same as me, because she was me beyond any doubt except that it couldn’t be. Same crooked nose, the same intricate wrinkles on the forehead (and everywhere else), same grey hair tied in a bun, same flowery sari – I was stunned, literally. The good thing was pain had subsided. I felt full of energy.
Yet I couldn’t move myself. Not the pupils, not the eyelids, not my hands, head or body. I lay there on the cot frozen under the sun. My body was taken inside the house and my family followed it leaving me behind, alone and confounded.