The Life and Death of a Coward (Continued)

By Nikhar Agarwal

She thanked her neighbours for taking care of her daughter and entered one of the many huts on the roadside, each of which was walled and roofed by thin corrugated iron sheets, indistinguishable from the others, except for the advertisement poster of a local toothpaste brand taped onto the metal.

She quietly laid Lali in the wooden cradle, and smiled for the first time in the day. She gently began rocking it.
I hope Ravi is able to manage everything in the hospital. It’s a pity he does not like his father. I wish he did. But can I blame him? He hasn’t really had the best of childhoods. At 16, he is already so much more mature. Maybe I shouldn’t have left him alone at the hospital. Not that I don’t trust him. He’s a wonderful son. But maybe it’s too much for him? Well, I didn’t exactly have a choice, did I? Had to feed Lali too…she’s so frail anyways. I did not come back from the hospital because I wanted to. No, obviously not. I would have stayed there whole night, if I could have. Yes, of course. But I did not have a choice, really. Because obviously, I do want my husband to be okay. To even think otherwise would be evil. But really, I had to take care of Lali. Ah, my daughter…she’s so pretty and so innocent and so quiet…not like those who wail all day and night. Oh, I really wish that my husband liked her.

Her thoughts persisted throughout the evening, broken only by sudden overwhelming gushes of love she felt for Lali.
‘Ma?’ Her son had returned. He looked tired, much older than 16, his shoulders were stooped and the face drained of all color.
‘How’s your dad?’ she asked, handing his son water in a dented aluminum glass.

Ravi sat down on the charpai, drinking down all of the water in one gulp. ‘They had to cut his leg off… said it was crushed beyond repair. But he’ll live.’ He said that as if he was announcing the time, without a hint of emotions.

‘Oh…’ That is all she could say…taken aback and at a loss of words. She felt ashamed that she wasn’t crying and grieving already. ‘Don’t worry…everything’s going to be fine. With our love and care, he’ll be fine.’ She thought it was the appropriate thing to say.
Ravi sharply turned his head to look at her, wearing an expression of utter incredulity. ‘Love? For him? Right!’ He scoffed.

For a minute, the hut was graveyard silent. Ravi sat there rubbing his eyes with his palm. She wondered if he was just sleepy, or if he was fighting back tears. He then looked at her and said, ‘I don’t think you understand what this means. The government is only paying 50,000 rupees for the injured as compared to a lakh for those who died in the building collapse.’ He said the last sentence real slow.
‘How do you think we are going to pay for his medical expenses?’ His voice quivered with emotions now. ‘You’re already working. I am already working. We’re done… for ever.’

She could see his eyes definitely brimming with tears this time. He didn’t look sad however, but his face was red with rage.

‘I wish he was just DEAD!’ He said that with such hatred that she thought those words alone would kill. ’Then maybe…I could go back to studying again.’ He stormed out of the hut crying, as she stood stunned.

***

The skies resounded with thunder, and the clouds poured water in plenty. She went to the doorway to slide the iron sheet shut. That is when she saw him, her husband with a malicious gnarled smile on his face, in the flash of the lightening against the backdrop of the dark of night. Her heart skipped a beat; she backed off as her husband dragged himself into the hut with a crutch in one hand and his wooden leg leaving an impression on the wet earth.

‘Give me the money, sweetness!’ he said, his stretched smile further distorting his scarred face.
‘Wh– what?’, she stammered, her eyes wide with fear.

‘Your wages…today is 1st, isn’t it? Give it to me.’ The smile had completely vanished.

‘Wh–why?’ She had begun to shiver.

‘You very well know why!” He wiped his hand over his lips.

‘N-no its for-’

‘Give it to me right now, you sl***** wh***!’ He bellowed, his face was livid with anger.

‘Please…it’s for her medicine!’

‘Her? You dare defy me for her!’ He quickly dragged himself towards her daughters cradle and grabbed her in his free hand like she was a lifeless doll. ‘This-little-piece–of-SH**!’

Her daughter began crying, the wails muffled in the mayhem of the storm and her husband’s heavy panting.

‘Stop it! She’s our daughter for god’s sake!’ She had begun sobbing herself, feeling helpless and tiny.
‘I’ll have nothing to do with this useless piece of junk, you understand?’ He growled, his soaked body shook with rage. He lifted her daughter over his head. ‘Now give me the money- or I drop her!’

‘N-no pleaseee…’ she could taste her salty tears as she began crying profusely now.

‘Before the count of three. One…’

‘Don’t do it, I beg you!’

‘TWO…THR-’

‘WAIT!’ she shrieked. She took the purse out of her blouse with trembling hands and handed over the money to him.

‘Good girl!’ He placed her daughter in the cradle. ‘And now…’ the nasty smile returned, ‘…it’s time for some punishment so you don’t forget who the boss is.’ He held the crutch high in the air and gave it a mighty swing.

The air hissed around the crutch as it rushed towards her skull. Just as it was about to make contact, she woke up.

She was sitting on the charpai, sweating and shivering. She looked around. Her son hadn’t returned yet. She began crying. She wasn’t merely crying because of the dream, she was crying because that is what she always did, pitying herself and wishing she wasn’t such a coward that she was.

***

Today, the ward was silent. The crying was elsewhere now. She was sitting besides her husband as he lay there sleeping, with an oxygen mask on his mouth and a bunch of tubes wrapped around his skin.

She liked it when the ward was noisy. The noise kept her distracted, kept all those bad thoughts at bay. But today they were unrelenting, stubborn.

She thought about the nightmares. How her husband beat her for money and sometimes, just because he felt like it. How he drank off her wages, forcing Ravi to work at a tea stall, ruining his childhood. She thought about those tears as Ravi had stormed out of the hut. She thought about how this man on the bed forced her for another boy. How he went mad with rage when it was a girl and how he nearly killed her.

She finally saw that man on the bed for what he was, a beast in human flesh. In that moment of clarity, she knew what had to be done.
She looked around and then drew the curtains around the bed. She took a deep breath and pulled the oxygen mask off his face.
He woke up with a start. The machines on the bedside started beeping loudly. His breathing quickened. For a moment, as he looked at her, his eyes had malice and hate. Then they travelled from her hands, which had the mask to her face, which was calm. The eyes grew wide and for the first time she saw fear in them.

He twitched in his bed and coughed. The beeps from the machine were getting quicker. She saw him struggle as he beat his hands on the bed. Then, after a couple of minutes of struggle, his eyes closed and his breathing almost slowed to a halt.
When she had taken the mask off, for a moment she had sensed freedom. But as soon as she had seen him thrashing about his bed,that clarity had subsided.

No, I cannot take someone’s life. But after all he did, does he deserve to live? I am not the one to decide. No, do not panic…in a minute or two, it’ll all be over. Stay calm. No…no, I just cannot do it. God would never forgive me. Think about Ravi…and Lali… don’t they deserve a better life?

She thought about them and somehow stood there, shaking wildly. And then his eyes had closed and the breathing almost stopped. That was the moment when she completely panicked. She realized that she could not do it. She quickly placed the mask back on him. Anxiously, she waited…finally letting out a sigh as the beeps slowed down and the breathing became normal again.

***

After the incident, every day she would come to the hospital and sit beside her husband and weave a sweater for Lali. As she would sit there, an image would keep coming back to her. That of his wide terrified eyes.

She often looked at her husband to see if he was watching. He frequently did but never said anything.

On the day of his discharge, she handed over the sweater to him at the doors of the hospital and said, ‘I would really like it if you would put this on Lali.’ He looked at her for a moment and then silently nodded, taking the sweater in his hands. She did not see love in his eyes then. But as long as he remembered who the boss was now, it was just fine by her.

She smiled as she pushed the wheelchair into the bright sunny morning.

The Skill and the Silver Lining

-Jasmine Bhanushali
With wondrous amazement I looked at her

As she bent down to pick up the pen

The skills that had always been mine

Evaded me at a crucial time

Don’t even touch it I said

When they dared lift the bag

Now they guide me with the steps I take

With just a word I was ready to climb for them

Now I have no choice but to ask them

I realized what I had taken for granted

And thank God for all he has given

You don’t realize how essential this simple act is

Until you lose the ability to do it.

It was the Saturday night after the Dussehra vacation. I had come back from a trip to Gujarat and had experienced the garba of six different towns! I excitedly showed my pictures to my sister and went to sleep. The next day I got up, got ready, and suddenly started coughing. There was a jerk in my back and I just couldn’t bend. The slightest of bending caused pain. I then decided to study because I had 2 exams and 3 assignments to submit in the coming week. I sat for about an hour, and then decided to lie down. Then I couldn’t get up – I just couldn’t get up without my mother’s help. The first day of pain. Then the second day slowly passed.

I initially dreamt of taking part in the sports day. I dreamt of healing in 5 days, and being able to take part in the 100m and long jump.I was on bed-rest for two months. I tried to go to college thrice in that period, and thrice I returned with extreme pain. The third time, I had tried to write my final exam, and wrote it painfully in pencil, while lying down on the floor. The initial few days, I needed help for everything – charging devices, or spreading the bed-sheet. Every time I got a little better I thought it was over, but it lasted for almost two months. Even in the third month the slightest of stress caused pain. I still have no idea when I will completely heal.

And yet despite all this, I have a few very awesome memories of this period.

Initially, I was in so much pain I could not spread the blanket till my toes, and they always felt cold. I used to keep calling my sister and parents, point to my toes and say, “Cover it, please!” By the time I could do it by myself, they knew what pointing at my toes meant. Even during the MRI the technician didn’t cover my toes, but one look at my father and he understood immediately!
Everyday after coming back from her college my sister would come meet me. She would then play Temple Run on the iPad and I would just enjoy watching her play. I was nowhere near as good as her (and had never managed to reach the blue coins). I also realized a surprising thing – when your back is delicate, even playing Temple Run strains your back!

When my mom would come home I would get the day’s updates from her and my sister (which include awesome friends, weird friends, annoying teachers and irritating/brain-frying government officials).

Having the MRI done was itself an interesting experience. First I had to remove any magnetic stuff. Then go inside The MRI Room and sleep in the bed that goes into this huge circular thing. Then they cover your ears – I realized their extreme need few seconds later. There is just so much noise! At first I was surprised and called in the attendant. alarmed. I then slowly convinced myself to dumb down the noise. Till it just became a distant whirring. In the process I imagined the iPad slipping out of my hand as I played Word- Wrap.

Sometimes, life without the iPad at that time seems unimaginable. The iPad had all my textbooks. I also had access to all the open course ware. In the two months I was in bed, I spent a major part of it studying my entire portion. One month into my problem the final exams were over, but I still had to continue studying as my exams were scheduled in January initially.

All this time my parents and sister were just so awesome and helpful. They would all come sit in my room, entertain me. My sister had now became my official “charger”. I would ask her to charge my laptop, iPad and cell. Despite the fact that she used to get very annoyed, she still did it. I also had few very good friends who came and visited me when I was still on bed. Some friends who I hadn’t met for over a year also came home and surprised me!

I then slowly started getting better. I remember the first time I sat for almost 3-4 hours and it felt like a great achievement. Once I came back to college, our end-sem marks and grades started coming in. Friends kept asking and I had to reply every time, “I haven’t written anything!” They were all very supportive: “Stop!” “Don’t lift the pen!” “Sit on the chair – are you sitting properly?” “I will carry your laptop”. Once in EW lab, after practically a whole day in the lab, I barely had the strength to move. I struggled even to lift my book. Then, without a word, just looking at my state, my friend just put everything back in my bag and took it back to GH. After that when my teacher asked me to drop EW I didn’t argue much.

Under the constant caretaking of my friends and family I was finally starting to get better. I remember the day I ran from Vindhya to GH. The exhilarating feeling of joy was amazing. I was jogging after almost four months. The problem with me is the moment I get a little better I come back to my normal running and jumping mode (clearly – I have extra attendance in PT!) which is obviously the worst thing for me to do. For me not being able to jump is like removing a part of my identity.

Finally the time came for me to write all my exams again. It was unfortunately during the week before Felicity. I am lucky I got to write most of them again. I have to thank my teacher for that. Unfortunately there is one subject in I am confident of knowing, perhaps even better than my friends, that I have to repeat. I just wish I had an opportunity, to atleast write the paper. Oh well. I have to be thankful for the others – at least I am not losing a year!

There are times where I have received unexpected help. Friends who I barely talk to have carried my laptop for me to the front gate on a Sunday morning. The kind hostel security guard who always inquires about my health – one of them has become a great friend, always offering to help me. Whenever I study, whichever subject I study, my friends do all sorts of things to ensure I am in the right position – get a laptop stand, put a carpet on the floor, and sit less comfortably themselves, sometimes.

This whole experience has taught me to respect my body and handle it with care. There have been a billion times in the past when I was running or jumping, and I have just missed from slipping or falling and hurting myself. All those times I always thought, “Saved”, and had a false sense of security that I would always balance myself. Now I can’t take that risk. It will be a long time before I can go on my next adventure trek.

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