Barely had I finished tea when mother called to make one for my father. I knew she had been in wait for me to enter the kitchen to return my own cup but my problem is the matter wouldn’t end with making tea, it would have to be fed too. What use is the attendant then who should be here anytime now?
I made a cup and brought it to the living room. That’s where over the years father had come to settle down, instead of the bedroom deeper inside, in order to be centred in this 2-bedroom apartment which was in any case his own to live in as he wanted, where he wanted. My wife and I had moved in taking the second bedroom near the front door after retirement from Pune. I had since bought myself a place in Gurgaon but needed to stay on in order to look after father. Mother didn’t live here. She had actually been on a visit from Sonepat where she lived but had continued—now for a whole month—seeing his condition. Earlier father would resist sleeping in the same room but was now beyond such considerations. The divan opposite was her bed.
“Put it there,” she said and began to get up. “He’s been awake for a while and tea will do him good.”
Father lay eyes-closed; unresponsive but listening, breathing heavily but alert to cooperate as asked. Lately he had developed chest congestion in the mornings and warm tea eased it up, as it would anyone.
“Papaji?” I called out loud as though he were in the other room. “I’ve brought you some tea. This’ll do you good.”
“Surendar has brought you tea,” mother was even louder. “Here, take some.”
She blew over a spoonful, felt it with finger and poured it into his mouth. Instant cough is what I had feared and instant cough is what came. You’ve got to get pretty physical in such situations and that’s what I am not good at when it comes to father. Especially father. My sole achievement of staying both these years looking after him was to ensure that day or night he was never without an attendant. This relieving boy had to be tightened. You can’t blame the world on Delhi buses.
“You sit here first Mummyji and raise his head, I’ll pour tea.”
Mother handed me the spoon and sat.
“And Papaji, first hold it all in your mouth, then swallow from the side, OK? Here…” Saying this I tilted his head away from me and poured. He responded and eased the liquid inside without choking. My father always had good muscle control and we have always had this kind of ‘reasoned’ understanding between us, him and me. There was no further crisis.
“Perfect,” I said relieved. “It’s this congestion that you can’t cough out but don’t worry. I have seen a machine in Apollo where they can easily suck out the phlegm. Today is Sunday but I’ll call Jain tomorrow and get them to bring it first thing in the morning.”
Tea did its job and father went to sleep.
I wasn’t sure what I heard was right. ““What?” I asked to make sure.
This was the attendant boy just slipped into my room, saying father was not moving and if I could come over and see. He had been ten minutes into duty, this boy, doing his regular sponging, changing and cleaning up, and then this. My mother was in the same room but he hadn’t told her. “What happened?” she asked as we entered.
Father lay on his side facing the wall. The boy had just finished shaving, even the foam had not been fully wiped from the face. “Papaji? Papaji?” I tried to play the man of the moment, not knowing any better. Should I touch, shake? What if he suddenly woke up? Checking pulse seemed the safest contact, which I made. Simultaneously I tried to judge against dark background if the body was rising and falling in breathing, howsoever faint. Both negative. In fact the wrist felt cold. Already?
“When did you notice?” I asked the boy as my mother began to do her own inspection. She was ashen faced I saw in passing but no tears, no hysterics. If she cries it’s not my mother. (It’s probably me.) My mother is strong.
Luckily I got Dr Jain on the first attempt. Playing safe or instinctively professional I don’t know which, he suggested taking him to Apollo. Said he could tell them to send an ambulance urgently although it would easily take half an hour or even more depending upon the traffic. That was neither here nor there; the ball was again back in my court. My mother was clear. “No, not to the hospital any more Surendar,” she said pleading. “He is over and done. He has no breath.” A large part of me felt the same but my concern was not even by mistake to fail him at the last moment. At the very least I wanted a partner in blame if it came to that.
Suddenly the need to be seen to be acting took hold of me. A doctor—even a hack who could tell one way or the other—should have been deciding if my father goes to hospital or stays, not me or my mother. And actually going and grabbing hold of one would be quicker than trying to call blindly. “Hello?” “Yes.” “Wait a minute…” and the rest. I suddenly wanted to be gone from the scene and for once I didn’t have my father’s opinion to lean on. I was on my own.
“I’ll go get a doctor from Sharma Nursing Home down below,” I told my mother. And at the same time decided that I was good to go in half pants. The phone was already in my hand but still took car keys for just in case.
The lift felt slow. Approaching the guards at the gate I wondered if the wastrels should be told. “Banarsi, is there a doctor living in the building?” And before the wily Bihari could begin to think of an excuse, added, “Ask them to go see Papaji, he’s unconscious. I’m going to the Sharma Nursing Home to get somebody.” “Haan, dekhta hoon sir. Sunday hai, koi to hoga,” said the quick thinking Banarasi beginning to look positive. “It’s Sehgal Nursing Home now sir,” I heard him say after me.
It’s not for nothing that this man has been the chief of security here for decades, I thought.
The newly renovated nursing home next door had a 5-star ambience but its starched receptionist morphed into a regular middle class girl as soon as she heard my story. My greys too seemed to have made an impact on her. She first spoke on the intercom, then, momentarily unsure if she should be doing that, left the counter for a more direct approach. (Much like my own, I thought.) I glanced at the traffic outside. The world was plying quite indifferent to the plight of one of its members.
Suddenly I felt I was wasting time standing there. Satish had to be told, for one. I messaged him and the boy immediately called. It must have been 4.30 in the morning for him and yet… Years ago he used to rise along with the quilt being peeled off him on cold winter mornings for studies.
“Hello!” “Hello!!” he checked in urgency.
For a long while he heard nothing but my silence, then my sobs. Then whatever I had to tell him. But more than Satish’s response I remember the reaction of the young doctor who had meanwhile come and stood waiting. I began to address them both, one through the other.
“No, he is not responding… Well, at 92 years, maybe that’s a coma I don’t know. No, I’m in Sharma Nursing Home as I speak, to take a doctor. Well, to at least see if he needs hospitalisation? There is no point taking the body all the way to Apollo and find…” I was already getting ready for a second round of meltdown. Body?
Satish too is a doctor but at 10 years younger he is almost a son. The Jain that I have been talking about is his batch mate from AIIMS days. He’s been our man Friday for all issues relating to my father’s health.
In fact Satish was here until 3-4 days back and had just returned to England after a week’s stay. As I later learned he told Satwanti when he reached home not to unpack. “I’d likely have to go back again. Sooner rather than later,” he had told her. While leaving for the airport he had hugged Papaji as he sat bent over on the sofa, taken selfies and the rest, and told me, “The way he looks, he could go on like this for months. Or be gone while I am in the taxi.”
The kindly receptionist, the faceless doctor as well as some nursing home staff who had by now begun to linger in the distance stood sympathetic. The situation had played out in the open for everyone to see and nobody was in doubt. They would have had stories to tell that evening when they returned home I’m certain. After crying to an audience my own breathing had stabilised and there was no point pursuing the matter with the doctor any further. My father was for all practical purposes—as had slipped from my own mouth a while ago—a body.
The word had spread fast and the convergence of the kindred was swift. Seeing that the cremation had to be done before sunset my father had timed it to everybody’s convenience. The farthest relatives had to be coming from Jind and Rohtak so both morning hours and Sunday helped. These were his brothers’ and late sister’s families. So when the crematorium wanted to know the time, I had uncertainly asked them 5-ish, to which they had not objected. So 5 it was and I called and told Deepak, Davinder’s son, 35, to tell everybody. Davinder himself, our second brother, was away in US visiting his elder son. Sister Munni was at the other end of Delhi and my mother had already called her.
Considering that I had no experience of ‘hosting’ such an occasion I didn’t do too badly. The moment father was given up I experienced a surprise release. He no longer needed to be attended to, looked after, meal to meal, need to need. As such the attendant boy was the first to fall irrelevant; he just fell idle. Rather than have him come another day, I rounded off his amount to a generous high and paid up in warm gratitude. He had served us well. The buses in Delhi are a pain and there is no denying that. He would also of course let the other boy know.
After this all I had to do was to be there along with my mother and be met, hugged and embraced as needed. Instinctive smile at meeting old relatives was to be checked but soon that was no problem. I knew a white kurta-pajama was bound to be needed and rather than have somebody fuss about it, I had quietly driven to the nearby Fabindia complex and got his size. Shroud cloth? I didn’t know where and how much and what else came with it, so I left it for others to get. A priest? Was one needed? I didn’t know.
But with the relatives gradually arriving the entire scene was soon on the autopilot.
Everybody came and eased themselves among mourners until someone joined to guide them to uncover and show my father’s face. The body had been brought down from the bed and covered with his used bed sheet. Was my camera charged? I went to my room and checked. It was. But would it be all right to go about with a camera in this situation? Is it done?
Unsure, I first clicked pictures of how my own room looked. The unmade bed, newspaper spread, the remotes, open laptop, a mosquito repellent tube, a calendar on the wall, a patch of sunlight.
My life was from now on going to change in major ways.
I walked through the mourners and headed towards my father. On the way I flipped open the viewfinder and twisted it facing up so I could see the image sitting on the floor. Nostrils raised, mouth open, unshaven bristles on the chin, eyes in half-open slits. Surprisingly the skin was already shining and hanging loose from peaks like on mummies. As a boy I had known those bristles on my cheeks.
Nobody objected, nor disapproved. How else would my brothers get to see what everybody is seeing? How will I remember this day myself later on if ever I wanted to? (Perhaps the same reason extends to why I am writing this piece too.)
I took two or three angles before covering the face back again. Then retraced my steps back to the door through which I had entered, for a long shot. It took two or three of those to cover the entire group. My mother sat on her divan just as she had been sitting that whole morning. In one corner I spotted Sanjay Jain sitting on the floor like a complete nobody. That was the famous consultant from Apollo hospital who you queued up to see, whose time was big money and whose word was often final. Not knowing anyone else the soft-spoken doctor stayed by my side the rest of the evening substituting for Satish. This was no time to ask him if he still had his father; Satish had lost his just that morning.
One custom that I was hoping would somehow get bypassed in the general melee didn’t after all get bypassed and I was called over. Simultaneously other guests, particularly ladies, began to drift to the other room. I was to give a bath to my father and dress him in new clothes. Lying as before the body was being bared as I reached and a mug of water brought. So it was to be a ritual bath rather than an elaborate thing alone in the bathroom. That was a relief. Already a number of others had started the process, wetting their hands in the mug and splashing water all over the body. I too put in my hand in water and patted on my father’s chest. Trimmed as he used to wear his dense growth of hair, it had a matted feel as if on grass. Soon enough, even before the towel was brought in and water soaked, the new kurta was being drawn over the two arms and pulled down along the body, unbuttoning the top button at the last moment so the neck could pass. I kept fumbling through the process as though in participation, refraining all the time from looking at the face and elsewhere as the body kept falling limp.
When father was finally brought out of the house, it was in surprising urgency and caused a collective heave and sudden commotion. But again the body was rested in front of the lift, this time for ladies to pay their last respects. Tradition forbids women to attend cremation although I can’t say I haven’t seen any attending. As my mother’s walker was heard, in anticipation I took a long position on the staircase going to the terrace. Held by numerous hands and swaying side to side, mother was guided towards the head but instead she broke down and reached towards the feet. I clicked two pictures in quick succession before my own choke up swelled and subsided.
For the last leg of his journey on the planet, my father had just me for company. The hearse that Lodhi Road crematorium had sent was small—a Maruti Omni—and it couldn’t take a third body beside my father’s and mine. Which was just as well. The evening sun, rich in symbolism and good for photography, went flickering over his papery white cover, intermittently lighting up the otherwise dark cabin. Leaving our gates, we first went along the overhead metro line for a while, then stopped at the busy LSR college traffic junction. When we resumed, it was straight along the length of the park where my father had for years been taking long walks (more I know from loneliness than alleged reasons of health). Even now through the blur of trees I could see a group of oldies chatting away on distant benches—one even guffawing—doing the same.
When the crematorium had asked us our choice of the mode of cremation, I had tried to play the progressive ecologist but was again overruled by my mother’s pleading. Log fire felt kinder to her than electric current. So cremation by fire it was and they began to arrange logs of wood over the body as soon as it was laid on the assigned platform. Everybody chipped in, young with heavy work and the elderly through gesture. It took us quite a while—and strategy—to pile up a huge heap of wood over the body. Amazing that it should take such a lot of fuel to consume human body. And time too, for the ashes would be fit to collect only next morning.
When it was all over, somebody handed me a flame. I passed my camera to Dr Jain who was ready in anticipation. Amidst murmurs of promptings I brought the flame under a part of the log that was wet with ghee and had lots of ventilation around. Others took over from there and lit up the pyre all around.
Once the fire had caught on there was nothing left for us to do except stand and experience the moment.
Returning, I was surprised that I felt light and free like I had never felt in years.
This was on May 1, 2011. Since then our mother has left too. That was last year on September 10, 2016.