THE CHEST PAIN has subsided, but coughing has not. It keeps me feeling like I am on a rock and going to fall in a valley. Mama is reading something. Good. Otherwise she would sing her song, targeting me: it’s all your doing. Other three faces are sitting silent, as if they have come to see me for last time.
“We need one person to talk with. Who is the patient’s near relative?” Two nurses with interchangeable heads come inside. Looking at the walls, one of them asks anyone of us who wants to answer. I fail to decipher what she means by the term ‘near relative’. But I am sure that all the persons encircling my cot have understood the meaning, as they are looking at each other. Everyone seems unwilling to be my near relative. My mother seems unaware of it, perhaps, as she is struck by the incidences taking place in her daughter’s life.
At the age of thirty-eight, I cannot be my mother’s responsibility. Nor she is capable to help me, too. But she has carved out a firm belief: had I been living with my husband, there would have not occurred such a painful situation.
“He was not a man to be left so gracelessly.” My elder brother opens his mouth. That is what he believes and says in front of my relatives, my maternal uncle and aunt, too.
“Do you know Rekha, how much your operation would cost?” My maternal uncle passes hand on his increasing bald, trying to educate me about the billing pattern of doctors. His chartered accountant-ship has made him a near relative of the figures only. He cites figures in thousands only, omitting three zeroes. In fact his whole vocabulary is targeted at me. But missing the target, it frightens my mother.
It is as clear as tears that my bank balance is too weak to bear the blows to come from the doctor’s billing computer. Nor my employers are in a mood to pay even a penny for my hospitalised expenses. They are modern minded; they are quite professional; and they want to reduce manpower. My illness may provide them a good pretext to throw me out.
“You are required to deposit the amount by tomorrow morning.” The doctors, I have heard so, hardly involve a patient in the hard talks about the diseases. But on failing to locate any near relative of mine, an assistant doctor tells me about three options of payment: in cash, by a cheque, or through a credit card. If I add all the three means, it would hardly be half of the amount needed. And I am still sane; so I am unable to fantasize that a saviour from the sky would come and pay the bill for making my heart suitable to last longer.
“If you still don’t undergo the surgery…” The chief doctor had not completed the sentence. But I am sure he meant that without doing the operation I would be a gone case.
“Bye-pass surgery is too costly.” My brother leaves the room.
“It’s all your doing.” Mama is still displeased for my past behaviour.
MY MARRIAGE WITH Sunil was not an accident. Nor it was an incident preceded by any noteworthy affair. I was still on the side of sanity, unmarried, until I met him. The night had not started yet, but the sun had set. I met him in a company meeting, and a simple file-pushing clerk in me became wife of a key figure in the city’s industrial group.
I was assisting my executive director in those days. “I like neat administrator like you.” That was what Sunil told me in a narrow lounge of the Hotel where our company held meetings with its clients. I took his words as a simple pat on my back. If taken in other way, it was a subtle flirting, too.
“You’re generous, Mr. Sunil.”
“No. I am serious, Ms. Rekha.”
It was early January. He was in a neat blue suit and my not-so-thin body experienced a tremble, even within a woollen wrapper. The season changed. Warmth replaced the cold. My company issued me a licence to meet Mr. Sunil, the top industrialist of the city, at any time I can get his appointment. The genuine invitations for dinner replaced our professional meetings. And by the end of the June, the day came on which we were accepting wedding gifts in the Reception Hall of the same hotel where Sunil and I had met for one simple business meeting.
IF MY SALARY INCOME was a pebble, then Sunil’s business income was a big rock. There were workers in his factory earning more than my salary. But for me, the calculation was different. Were my income and the independence to be added, it would have been a big amount. Hence I preferred continuation of my job. It was not a problem until the day we were returning from a huge party given by Sunil’s friend.
“Rekha, we do not talk so loudly among friends as you talk.” The reference to the friends was secondary. Primary was his emphasis on ‘we’ and ‘you’. Within the spell of five kilometres, the distance between the party hall and our home, he educated me about the precise meaning of the words ‘we’ and ‘you’. He counted all the incidences where I had behaved like a middle class woman.
The axe had made its mark. Only the blood was to come out. It came out on the day of our first wedding anniversary. It was an arid event of showing heartless joy and talking stereotype matters regarding Sunil’s business and friends. I had not insisted presence of my personal friends. Nor did he talk about my invitees.
“You know Rekha, these people rule the whole city’s economy.”
“Sunil, do you expect me to discuss economy? It is our first wedding anniversary.”
“Yes, and that’s why I have gifted you a new car.”
“I do not need a car for going to my office.”
“Rekha you don’t need to go to office at all. It’s middle class mentality. Better you manage our purchase department.”
THE LINE OF DIFFERENCE was clearly drawn from that day. On the next day he openly told me to resign from my job. I protested. But the next year involved Sunil’s tours outside the country and I had started forgetting about the difference between ‘we’ and ‘you’. I started believing that the class conflict was over. My nightmare did not last long.
“We should talk about a child.”
“Good.” I was not as cold as he thought, perhaps.
“Rekha, It’s impossible to look after a child and attend the office.”
“There are millions of working mothers.”
“All from the middle class.”
“Stop it Sunil. I’m fed up with this.” I might have shouted.
The days passed and we were not husband and wife, virtually. We were not a family, too. Merely sleeping in one bedroom does not make a man and a woman a family. The day of decision was to come, sooner or later. It came sooner.
“Choose between a child the job.” Sunil was not in two minds.
To have a child was not my dislike. I still want to be a mother, a good mother. But under the circumstances, my choice was simple. I decided against trusting a man who was unable to bear the independent income of his wife. I had my mother, a brother, and a house built up by my father to go back. They all became my enemies from that day.
Two years passed making the distance between ‘we’ and ‘you’ wider. I had heard, that too from my brother, that Sunil was preparing divorce papers. But there was no communication.
THE MORNING IS as lightless as it can be on someone’s funeral day. Doctors have not come yet. There are only nurses, wearing coffin-grey dresses, looking subdued after the sleepless night. Before selling all the gold I possess, and discounting all the finance-worthiness I have, to take a second opinion of another doctor would be better: that is what I am chewing with my morning tea and biscuits. Entire hospital is deadly silent. Had my mental traffic been able to blow horns, there would have been great noise around.
My near or the distant relatives would not come today. Mama might come at noon. So I feel relieved. But the hardest thing was yet to come. A nurse informs me about a visitor. I thought about someone from my office. Before the visitor comes, the assistant doctor stands in middle of the door, without looking at me.
“It’s time for final deposit. Who is the patient’s near relative?”
“I am her nearest relative.”
A man with the words of authority enters the scene. He stops near the doctor for a handshake. First thing I can see is his neat blue suit, and then the well-polished shoes. He is the man whom I had met first time at the hotel where my company held meetings for its clients. He is the man who had told me that ‘I like neat administrator like you.’
He drags the stool nearer and sits.
“Sunil, who told you…”
“No. Heart patients are not allowed to talk more, you know.”
He looks weaker, eyes pail, face ageing. It is almost two years I saw him last time. The vigour that handles his business single-handedly is missing. But the lively voice marks his presence, effectively. The doctor goes away. Sunil avoids talking about who informed him about my illness and everything.
“In fact I want to get second opinion about it, the bye-pass.”
“It’s up to you, dear. But I have arranged one week’s vacation. And this room is comfortable for a patient and one attendant. Isn’t it?”
Half an hour of his being here wipes out the factors of time and space, which have run between us. From the window I believed as closed, the brightness of sun enters. It turns the air warmer. It makes the patient’s room more comfortable for seeing the man’s face clearly.
Sunil’s hand is on my head, fondling my hair. END