The rubber tried to hold on to the tar, but it was a losing battle. The speed was too high and time too less. Umesh was distracted by the message on the mobile as he executed the turn on the hilly serpentine road to Manali. Swathi slept peacefully as many events crowded into the last few seconds. The monstrous truck was hurtling down the same road as it appeared around the bend at the last moment. Umesh hit the breaks instinctively and the tyres screeched as they laboured to do what they were created to do. But the tyres were literally losing ground. The wet roads, the speed of truck and the late instruction by Umesh were stacking the odds against them. The inevitable was about to become a tragic reality. Swathi opened her sleepy eyes to stare at death. She never had a chance to have a last look at her husbands face as the truck rammed the chassis of the car into her rib cage. The last thought she had was for Aditya who lay strapped in the back seat. Her last prayer to God remained mumbled on her bruised lips
“….please save him!!!”
Sunder Lal was alone at home, going about his routine, which, more or less, had got fixed since he retired 12 years ago. It was 30 Sep 2006, 12 years since his wife had died at the Military Hospital in New Delhi. She succumbed to the fatal consequence of Dengue. This was the first outbreak of such a deadly fever. No one could predict such a catastrophe. He was serving his last day of his army service in the north east when he recieved the tragic news. The doctor had assured him of the improving situation. Lulled by this apparent hope, he gave in to his foolish desire to stay back for his farewell dinner.
She had left him with two sons Bhavesh and Umesh. Bhavesh was the elder one. He stayed at home with mother. He had completed his Bachelor Degree in Commerce. He was preparing for the Bank examination. Well that is what he claimed he did. Umesh, the younger one, had recently joined IIT Guwahati. He was the very first to have cleared the coveted exam among the community. Sunderlal and his wife were so proud of him. Sad his wife had to leave before she could see her son becoming an Engineer. Sunderlal asked him to join him at Guwahati Airport.
Bhavesh was yet to reach home with the mortal remains, when Sunderlal and Umesh reached home. The house was teeming with the relatives. The mood was of disbelief. Each one was speculating the cause and was placing the blame. The blame shifted from the irresponsible government, the unusually hot weather in September caused by global warming and to state of disinterest shown by Bhavesh while pursuing the treatment.
Sunderlal could not blame any one else. He would live with this heavy burden of the cross. The ‘whys?’, ‘what ifs?’ were questions which were likely to haunt him recurrently in his mind space.
The questions still echoed in his mind with an eerie clarity.
Today, it was another day of routine. 12 years hence, the pain had reduced to a mere numb throb. But at days like these, when no one else was around he missed his wife. In these day bound by routine, he painfully missed another significant event which had kept him alive. He missed taking Aditya, his favourite grandson to school. His scooter, although old, was faithful enough to never fail him on this critical task of the day.
The circle on the calender marking the date of Aditya’s return from his holiday at Manali, was still four days away.
The phone rang with a uncultured and intrusive ring. It lived up to its jarring personality.
“Am I speaking to Mr Sunderlal?” spoke the omnious voice on the other end of the device.
Sunder Lal would have normally banged the phone after speaking his heart out at the intrusive tele-marketer. But this time he knew it wasn’t going to be any selling. The omnious voice warned of a “Loss”.
“This is Sub Inspector Dhumal” identified the caller. The tone combined with the identity of the caller made his gut recoil and his hand grip the phone harder.
“Yes…? Sunderlal… er… Col Sunderlal, retired… speaking”, he replied, trying to hide his worry.
“I am sorry to inform you that your Son Umesh and his family have met with an accident” said the officer with a practiced ease.
The details sifted through the dazed ear of a man losing his sanity. He was not hearing a word, but he did not need words to feel the deep sense of loss.
“But, by the God’s grace, the child has survived, unhurt. But he is in no state to identify the bodies of his parents. Can I request you to come here to identify and collect the body?”
The last statement made him break down and cry. The phone slipped and crashed on the floor.
Nobody spoke as they traveled on the same winding road in the opposite direction. The irony of the situation was stark. In one direction it led to happiness and fun, while on the opposite end it led towards gloom and despair.
The gloomy silence was broken as Bhavesh recieved a call from his office enquiring his likely date of return.
“Your sanctioned leave ends tomorrow. Manager wants you to meet him tomorrow”. The officious voice of the office clerk echoed on the bluetooth speaker of the car.
“I am not dead. I will return!!” Retorted Bhavesh, irritated by so many factors. The tragic occurance, the inconvenience and the added responsibilities of his father and Umesh’s child were weighing on his mind.
“How can you talk like that to your employer, the provider of your bread” implored Sunder Lal.
“For the money that they provide you cannot even buy a loaf of bread. And now I have two extra hungry mouths to feed.” complained Bhavesh.
“Be sensible Bhavesh, there is a child in the car who has just lost his parents. He is your Nephew goddammit!!!” spoke Sunder Lal in a hushed but stern whisper.
“Thats your grandson, born out of your favourite child. Don’t lecture me now.”
Aditya snuggled closer to Sunderlal, his only thread of sanity left.
Sunderlal looked affectionately down at the young boys face. He ran his hands tbrough the boy’s hair. He thanked god as he saw the eyes were shut tight.
“God bless you, dear angel of sleep for saving this poor soul from the brutal teuth of life” he said a silent prayer.
Sunderlal failed to notice the shifting of the eyeballs under the clinched eyelids as they battled the welling up of the tears inside.
It had been an year since the unfortunate event had turned the lives of Sunderlal and Aditya into an tangled mess. Post that tragic event, both of them had shifted to Bhavesh’s place. The shift was more economic and administrative rather than emotional. The rental expenditure and the cost of maintenance of the palatial house was considered unnecessary by Bhavesh. The tragedy caused the double jeopardy for Aditya. The loss of family combined with the loss of familiar surroundings caused a severe strain on the psyche of the little boy. The cynical attitude of Bhavesh wasn’t helping either. It drew Aditya closer to his grand father. His grandfather was Aditya’s only island of solace and sanity. He never realised that Sunderlal felt the exact same feeling for Aditya. Each were a support for each other .
The routine was fixed.
Everyday, Sunderal would drop Aditya to school on his old and faithful scooter. He would be there much before the bell rang for the end of the school, waiting patiently under the old shady banyan tree opposite the school gate. As the long bell rang, heralding the long awaited “Chutti”, Sunderlal would cross the road and place himself at the centre and in the first file of the waiting mass of parents or assigned caretakers. Aditya would search him out and would feel happy to see him at the familiar spot. For that smile of recognition and relief, Sunderlal was prepared to jostle with the other claiming the same spot.
The ride to the school was filled by stories of Sunderlal. Stories of bravery and stories of patriotism, Stories of Mythology and stories of fantasy. Aditya would remain quite, partly because he was wanting to hear the stories and mostly because he was scared of the prospects of the school. Stories of Sunderlal took him on the ride of fantasy and wonder, away from the crippling thoughts of the school. The ride back would be full of stories from Aditya. Stories of fun and stories of deceits, stories of friendship and stories of enemies, stories of victories and stories of loss. Sunderlal would patiently listen to them, without judgement and prejudice.
Together, they lived in the world woven around with their stories. Truth and fantasy were unrecognisable as they merged into one glorious reality. These stories were their world. A well preserved world existing within the outer world. It was, as if the real world did not exist.
Aditya woke up to a frenzied commotion. Bhavesh uncle was speaking in an urgent tone with someone on the phone. Aunty held her son close in a tight embrace possibly trying to shield him from the cacophony. Aditya wasn’t sure what was happening. He couldn’t dare ask. His eyes met Bhavesh uncle. There was irritation in the eyes.
Aditya felt unsure of what was happening. He wanted to dive back into his own world. He saw his grandfather’s room uncharacteristically open. He slowly walked in. He was filled with a heavy gloom. Somehow it seemed their world was breached. The environment was lifeless, there was no breeze. It was as if, it had died.
Sunderlal lay calmly, his face serene in contrast with the the frenzy outside the room. Was he dead? If this was death, why was his grandfather so peaceful. He felt happy for the peace his grandfather was experiencing. He was also slowly realising the enormity of the change in his life. The reality closed in on him.
The walls seem to rush in and create a wedge between him and the serene body of his grandfather. He was petrified. He wanted to shout at his grandfather to move quickly towards his side, because he was rooted to the floor. He panicked as his voice was also stuck within him. It seemed to echo within him with no perceptible effect on the outside. His silent screams were making no effect on the oblivious body of his grandfather. The walls were looming large. It rose from within the floor too. It was getting claustrophobic.
Aditya shouted his lung out. It was not a cry. It was a shriek.
Bhavesh uncle was shouting instruction to his wife, “Stop this imbecile from creating a ruckus. I am trying to speak to the hospital guys. These people want to be sure he is dead” grumbled Bhavesh. He cupped the receiver as added conspiringly “All these are ways to extract some money. I know how to handle these leeches. You just make him quite!!!”
The deal was done. Bhavesh was good at it. There was no need of a travel to the hospital. The body could be taken to the cremation ground. There was no family to waited for. The rituals were to be completed earliest. Why waste time and money. It would be a private affair.
The body burned over the sandalwood. The charred remains were collected as the mortal remains only to be prepared for being sprayed over a flowing water. Submitted and consumed by the fire and returned to the water.
The fire was lit by Bhavesh. He was entitled to do it. It was the rule of inheritance. He was allowed to offer the mortal remain of his father to the fire. Inheritance of this obligation was his right. This right also entitled Bhavesh to be the legal heir.
Aditya looked at the urn full of ash. The ashes were the mortal remains. It wasn’t his grand father. This wasn’t what he was looking for. Aditya was looking for something they both shared. Then he looked up into the sky. No answer seem to appear. No answer seemed to be an explanation. He wasn’t even sure what to ask. His world had disappeared. The world that they shared. He suddenly blamed his grandfather for taking his entire world. He was not supposed to take that. Their world. For that he was the heir. He was the only entitled one. The worldly laws were of no consequence for this pronouncement.
That was his inheritance. And it had turned into ashes.