K.V. Raghupathi, "Summer Death"
A thin layer of tears secreted from the lacrimal glands formed on eyeballs. He did not actually cry, but started sobbing on board, invisible because of the mask covering his face, as he became depressed and emotional, remembering his mother and father. A couple of days ago, he had a call from a neighbor from Tirupati: ‘Father passed away. The mother followed, notwithstanding. You may take a flight to reach the place. The funeral is uncertain. The bodies are in the mortuary.’ For the moment, it’s almost as if both of them were alive.
He was the only son, named Prabhat, settled in Vermont as a software engineer, married to an Indo-American girl, Vinita Agarwal, employed in the marketing sector. Actually, she belonged to Kanpur city in Uttar Pradesh in the north of India. It was a love marriage, though arranged later. They had a pretty twelve-year-old daughter in a school in Vermont.
He left India after securing a post-graduate degree in computers from IIT Kharagpur. Tall, less muscular, and brown, he had been away from India for over fifteen years. During that period, he had few visits to his home except twice because of his pressing commitments in the company.
A few passengers on board felt sorry for him on learning of the tragedy. A passenger who sat next to him from India, half curled in his seat, told him in pity, “There is no one like a mother and a father in human relations. Irreplaceable.”
Two air hostesses, smart and dressed in saree, moved up and down in the aisle, serving drinks and snacks. They did not, however, mind his sobbing, though they knew the story. Hours passed. The journey seemed to be tedious and painful, particularly for Prabhat. The memory of happy moments he had spent with his parents while he was in India moved like passing trees on a train journey.
It was true. When he was at home, his mother used to spend all her time with him, attending to his needs. There was so much love that existed between them. Actually, he never wanted to leave the home. But circumstances compelled him to leave the country to seek greener pastures. Life in the States was altogether different. It was not a leisurely one. Hectic and routine and hardly had time to talk with others. Weekends, though relaxing, too, were filled with other engagements such as visiting friends and attending to domestic chores.
Whoever came and knocked on the door, she woke up with surety that it was her half partner. But it was a fantasy. Day after day, night after night, the same experience was repeated with no ray of hope to see her half partner. It was early summer and the country as well as the world was in the second wave.
“Here he came,” she muttered with every footstep she heard.
“Quiet”, she said to herself, “he will come and take me home.”
But nothing happened.
She was sixty-two, not quite old. But streaks of grey hair parted with black hair. A graduate, but willingly not employed. Highly self-assured. Quarantined in an isolated ward within the premises of a government hospital for no potent reason. A week ago, she had uninterrupted hiccups that led to interrupted breathing. On suspicion, she was admitted here.
There was no communication with the outside world. The room was like a cell in a prison with a cot and a bed covered with a blue plastic sheet and raised pillows on either side; of course, a two-foot-tall stool to sit on. But for these objects, the room was empty; the door standing half open, only the mynas chattering outside in the trees abutting the room with contentment and joy and the crooning of doves. “What did I come here for? What sin did I commit? What did I want to find here?” A couple of magazines lying on the stool like dead fish, staring at the empty walls. Tired of reading stale articles, she saw nothing else, the pages flapping like leaves under the revolving ceiling fan with blurred images.
Her hands were empty, the walls were empty, and the glazed floor reflected the only burning light and the running fan. The room smelled medicated.
She sat awhile and moved around the cot as though perambulating as the space was small. Soon the shadows of her memory crossed the floor like phantoms from the deepest dark chambers. The pulse of the room beat softly with the beatings of her memory. Soon the pulse stopped, the streaming thoughts ceased like conveyor belts in a flour mill.
A moment later, the light stopped burning, plunging the room into semi-darkness. Out in the world, the happenings were shut. Nothing could be seen or heard. The torch in the mobile was turned on, the light flashed, the room shone and coolly shuddered.
The glass upside down in the middle of the plate was the death; death was the glass upside down; death was between her and the glass; the cot looked like a coffin, sealing the room with darkness.
Her partner left her; he was forced to stay away in fear of contamination. He was seventy-two, a retired employee in the service sector of the state government of Andhra Pradesh. Tall, five feet eight inches, bespectacled, he was afflicted with health complaints such as hypertension, cervical pain, and liver disorders. Unlike his wife, he was weak at heart. He had been on medication for long, ever since he had left the job.
He was not allowed to meet his quarantined wife. There was no virtual physical, face-to-face communication, as the rules of quarantine were made strict. However, this had not prevented them from having communication on the mobile. But it was barely a minute or two; it was on sharing health concerns, as there was nothing else that could be communicated long since both were in quarantine, she was in the hospital and he was in self-imposed quarantine on the advice of doctors.
The daughter died in fits after giving birth to a baby son. Her premature death was a deep shock to her mother, had almost made her senile both physically and psychologically. The little son was separated from his grandma. The communication between her and the son-in-law ceased after heated arguments over ownership of the baby son.
There was none at home except the old couple who had been living tending each other until the deadly virus Corona swept the temple city, plunging it into a series of lockdowns, preventing the outsiders, chiefly pilgrims from other places from reaching for the darshan of the Lord of the Seven Hills. The whole temple city was under lockdown for twenty-one days in the first phase, putting a severe strain on the people and business/commercial activities. But the second wave was moving with a few restrictions, giving relaxation to the business community in the city.
The mobile rang. As usual, it was a call from her son in Vermont. Every time a call came from him, they talked about nothing else except exchanging bare pleasantries and inquiries.
“For how many more days….?” The voice blared feebly.
“Until I am tested negative,” the mother replied coolly. “Doing prayer four times a day. No other way. He alone can save me, free me from the virus. Every day I am speaking to your dad. He too is not keeping well. His health has declined further because of isolation. Yet, he is buoyant, self-confident. Feeling lonely… taking medicine regularly…” The mobile stopped owing to poor signals. Communication was tough. Perhaps this was the last communication between the two.
Meanwhile, in the absence of calls from Vermont, what was happening to the old couple was barely known to their son. The health of the husband declined further, with no sign of revival. More than the physical ailments, his separation and isolation from his wife in self-imposed quarantine had made him utterly despondent and wreck.
Meanwhile, the pilot announced the landing of the flight at Delhi International Airport. It was early morning, sunny. The airport was clear, visibility, unlike in winter when it looked hazy. It was a tiresome journey for Prabhat; he had no sleep as he was squeezed between memories that haunted him throughout the journey. Eyes bulged, his nose blew, his body almost stooped with the sling bag. Wearing hand gloves and a mask to cover his face, following all Covid restrictions, he walked on the aisle maintaining distance between him and other passengers. At the door, the air hostesses kept a distance and greeted the alighting passengers. When Prabhat’s turn came, they said in dismal, “Take care. Have a wonderful day.”
He had to run for another flight to Chennai. It was not a long wait at the airport. The connecting flight was immediately available. Soon he boarded the flight after having a small South Indian breakfast after a long time (He never had it in the States ever since he left Tirupati) comprising a couple of idlies and vada followed by a hot coffee. It was probably all this dashing about that made him doze off as he boarded the flight. He slept almost all the way.
It was a two-and-a-half-hour non-stop fly in the sky. It was already midday in Chennai when the flight landed. The glare of the sky reflecting off the terminal building activated his muscles. Warming up in the sunlight while walking on the tarmac, he reached the conveyor belt 3, collected his wheeled suitcase, and soon was out through the exit door as he was hard pressed. Hiring a taxi, he set off. The sun was already high in the sky, hotter. This dashing about and then the jolting of the car and the smell of petrol and the glare of the sky reflecting off the road made him doze off once again in the car. He slept almost all the way. And the driver woke him up as the car reached the outskirts of the town.
Giving directions to the driver, he reached the home. But much to his shock and dismay, he found it locked.
One morning foul smell emanated from the small house in the south of the Bairagipatteda colony in the city. The smell wafted like smoke and reached as far as a hundred meters. The neighbors suspected something had happened in the house. But they feared to go near since the city was in lockdown besides contamination. Notwithstanding the smell, one neighbor called 108 ambulance and informed about the smell. No sooner had the driver of the ambulance been told about the smell than he drove past straight to the house. Wearing the PPE kit that included apron, gown, gloves, mask, and breathing equipment and goggles, three persons including the driver alighted from the ambulance like astronauts and strode towards the house, but much to their consternation found the house was bolted from inside. All the side windows were closed, and it was hard for the ambulance workers to see the inside of the house.
Neighbors shut their windows and doors of their houses in fear of contamination. However, a few peeped through the slit windows like baboons. Soon, the driver informed the police about the smell. On receiving the call, the police jeep, colored cream with horizontal maroon stripes with a flashing light on the top with a high decibel siren on the front bumper, reached the spot, and with brief hesitation, the police personnel comprising four dressed in khaki headed to the house and kicked the door harshly with their boots. With a half a dozen kicks, the latch went off broken, and the door swung open and bashed one of the personnel in the face. They barged into the room that led into another room in the right corner and found the body with a bloated belly, disfigured face, and stiffened dangling hands and legs.
“Nothing can be done here, at this point,” screamed the masked police Inspector. “Remove the body to the hospital.”
On receiving the orders, the ambulance personnel with protective clothes placed the body on the stretcher and carried it. The house was sealed and barricaded.
On instruction, the driver drove past the hospital. Leaving the luggage in the car, Prabhat walked into the ward that looked gloomy. The hospital staff was seen in PPE kits, the doctors making shuttles between the wards.
“I expect you would like to see both your father and mother,” said the doctor with protective clothes on his body. He was tall, but because of the covering, Prabhat could not make out his facial features.
“You cannot see them now, as they were completely wrapped in a protective cloth. We will not give the bodies, as the Covid rules say.” The words spluttered like popcorn from his mouth behind the mask.
For a few moments, Prabhat said nothing. Later, he pleaded with the doctor, who led the way to the mortuary. On their way downstairs, the doctor explained, “We have transferred them to our little mortuary. It is isolated to avoid emotional disturbance to the other patients. That will make the staff difficult to handle the situation.”
They crossed a courtyard where there were a few people, obviously related to the patients chatting in small groups. They would stop talking as they went by, then behind them, the conversations would start up again. At the door of a small building, the caretaker stopped. “I will leave you here. If you need me for anything, I will be in my office. We have arranged the burial as usual, but you will not be allowed. You can see the coffin of your mother and father from a distance now and leave.” The doctor departed, uttering these words in a feeble but coarse tone.
Three days had passed and there was no communication from the husband. The mobile left untouched by the police stopped ringing. This had created more anxiety and suspicion in her. There was none in the ward to whom she could inform and complain. The warded man visited three times a day to provide food on the plates kept outside the door for the in-patients. Dressed in a PPE kit, he would barely talk as instructed. He would not go near the patients. Only from a distance, the plate was dragged by a long-hooked stick and, after filling it with food, it was pushed back to the door. The in-patients had to collect it and replace it at the door after finishing eating.
The anxiety and suspicion grew louder and louder in the absence of communication from her life partner. Neither the doctor attending to her, nor the warded man nor the toilet cleaner, told anything about her life partner. The doctor maintained pressed silence, though he knew about the death of her partner in fear it would harm her psyche more than her body.
The communication from her son in Vermont, too, ceased. She was left to herself. Something about danger must have happened to her partner, she suspected. Who would confirm it? There were none. As her suspicions grew louder and louder, her heartbeat too went faster and faster. She hardly slept. The plate was left with half left over. The warded man removed it and filled it with fresh food. It went on for two days until, on the third day, he noticed the food on the plate was untouched. Panicked, he called her, but was content with her reply, “I am not hungry.” It was repeated on the fourth day and the following day, frightened he called at her in a mild tone, as there was no answer from the cell. He increased the decibel of his voice. There was no answer. Agitated, he shouted loudly, but there was no answer. Assured with his suspicion, he skittered and informed the doctor on duty in the other building barely a hundred meters away. The doctor, dressed in a PPE kit, removed her to the special cell with the help of two in-house boys.
There she lay on the bolstered cot, emaciated. She had fasted for three days and the doctor knew the reason for her senility but was stern in not revealing the truth of her husband’s death. Here, in the special cell, she was force-fed intravenously. Saline water was injected into her body. Her health was a bit revived, and she had come to her near normalcy.
Tell me, doctor, what has happened to my husband? Is he all right?” Her face was writ with anxiety and fear.
“He is all right. There is no cause to worry. He is safe,” the doctor burst out, giving no room for suspicion.
“Why then there has been no communication? There are no calls from him. His mobile is not ringing.” She insisted.
“He has been advised to take complete rest. He is on medication. To avoid external disturbances, his mobile is removed and kept on silent mode.”
“Can I see him?
“You cannot in this state. You are weak. You need to recover.”
“You can bring him here, at least,” the woman whined.
“The area is a prohibited zone.”
“Can you at least make a video of his image and show it?”
“No need to worry. He is safe.”
Sensing that he would be annoyed with questions, the doctor walked away reassuring her. But she was hardly convinced.
Nightmares pursued her.
The room was darkened. He left her, went North, went East, until the stars turned bright in the Southern sky. The house was empty, found beneath the darkening sky. However, the pulse of the house beat gladly, “safe, safe, safe.” Outside, the wind roared in the sky. Trees stooped and bent in surrealistic shapes. Moonbeams splashed blood and spilled wildly in the rain. However, the pulse of the house beat, “safe, safe, safe.” The walls of the house were brightened with the moonshine. Wandering through the house, opening the windows and doors of the East and West, whispering like a child, she sought her joy in the company of her partner. “Here we slept. Here you kissed and hugged me without a number. Here we joked and laughed belly full. Here we ate together. Here we played dice. Here we told stories to each other.” The doors and windows went shutting, beating rapidly without wind outside, like the pulse of a heart of a fear-stricken child. Nearer she went, the doors and windows ceased without wind outside. It appeared the wind had fallen off from the cliffs. But it rained, sliding down the glass panels of the windows and outer walls. She heard no noise beside her steps. The lantern was burning, shielding the darkness. “Look, he breathes. He is asleep, sound asleep with love on his lips.” Taking the lantern in her left-hand, stooping, she looked deeply and intently. She paused awhile and then long. “He is asleep, sound asleep with a smile on his face.” Suddenly, the wind roared outside. The windows and doors were wide open, the wind drove straight for the moonbeams to sneak in and cross the floor and walls. “Safe, safe, safe, and the house is safe.” The heart of the house is safe, beats proudly and loudly. “Long years I live.” Here he murmured, sleeping. She lifted the lantern and peered. “Safe, safe, safe. He is alive, asleep, permanently.” The pulse of the house beats wildly.
The glass upside down in the middle of the plate was the death; death was the glass upside down; death was between her and the glass; the cot looked like a coffin, sealing the room with darkness.
Waking, she cried hysterically, “Yes, he is safe, he is safe, he is asleep, sound with love on his lips and a smile on his face.”
The light in the special room went off. She slid into eternal sleep.
Back in the car, Prabhat hardly spoke to the driver except asking him to drive to the home in Bairagipattada. After paying off the hiring charges, he collected his luggage and broke the locked door, and trooped in.
It was half-past seven; the sky was already dark with the third-day moon rising and partly illuminating the city. The traffic was thin because of the lockdown, and the houses were lit as the darkness seeped in. There was nothing he could do now as he was completely tired and pushed himself flat on his back on the cot and dozed off. He dreamt little and woke up fresh to the morning calls of the birds.
He worked hard in the States for years. Now he left himself alone. He had lost his only sister, mother, and father. He asked himself, “How old were his father and mother?” He was not sure. But definitely, his father must be older than his mother.
Just then, his other next-door neighbor came and knocked on the door. He wore a chequered blue shirt on grey trousers. He was fairly tall and brown with a little stooping shoulder and a stubby nose. He was called Rahul. Prabhat knew him and recognized him, though almost ten years had passed. Both of them talked about the tragedy. “Isn’t it dreadful?” said Rahul. The house was dirty, things were scattered on the table, chairs, and floor in the corners. “The house needs to be cleaned,” muttered Prabhat, peering around. He had to do it as there was no servant who stopped coming because of the virus. He was told. He was tidying up the things. There was no conversation for a few minutes.
“Can you recall the sequence of events?” Prabhat asked, turning to Rahul. He sounded melancholic. The grief persisted in him. Rahul explained, recalling the last day’s happening.
“You see, Mr. Prabhat, it isn’t of no use. Just calm down.”
“This shouldn’t have happened.”
“People around here whisper that you have neglected your parents. You should have frequently visited your home. You didn’t do that. The old couple was left alone. In the last few days before their death, they felt loneliness, intensely.”
“That is not a wilful crime I have committed.”
“The old couple banked on you as the last hope after the death of your sister. But it appeared you did not care for them.”
“That’s true. I have duties and responsibilities in the office. My boss would fire me.”
Out in the open on the terrace of the house, Prabhat was placing the clothes, things, and objects. He looked up at the sky. The sun was peeling away the clouds; the day was getting warmer and warmer. The glare from the sky was unbearable. He came down and Rahul followed him.
“Why the hell this is happening in the world,” Prabhat said poignantly.
“It is a man-made calamity. Why blame God?” Rahul spoke quickly and passionately, telling him he believed in God.
“I am skeptical.” Prabhat sat down indignantly. “That is your belief. Damn it.”
“Even those who will not believe have to face Him.”
“You can count me in that group of non-believers, but I will not face Him, as you say.”
“Your life would become meaningless if ever you should doubt it.”
“Do you want my life to be meaningless?” Prabhat shouted. “Even with Him, life is meaningless. Which God has saved humanity from the catastrophe?”
“It is a blasphemy.”
“No, it is a belief, my firm belief.”
“It is only a belief. It can be amended.”
It was getting hotter and hotter outside. Prabhat had already skipped his breakfast. He was feeling hungry, which was noticed by Rahul, who said, “Can I bring something for you?”
Even before Prabhat nodded his head, Rahul went out and reached his home, which was hardly a few yards away. Meanwhile, Prabhat washed his face and mouth. Rahul returned with some sweet pudding, potato curry, and rotis made from wheat flour. No sooner had Rahul arrived with a carrier than Prabhat grabbed it, opened it, and gobbled the food. It showed a clear sign of starvation that Prabhat had the night before. He belched, and it seemed he had his fill. He thanked Rahul for the food.
After a brief silence, Prabhat stood up facing the mirror and repeated that with or without Him life was meaningless. But Rahul wanted to ask him a few more questions. First, he asked Prabhat if he loved his mother and father.
“Yes, like everyone else. Why suspect me?”
“Then why didn’t you visit them once a year?” There was no answer.
“There is no repentance on your face.”
Suddenly, Rahul stood up, strode to a corner of the room, removed the family photo from the wall, and came back to Prabhat brandishing it. In a trembling voice, he said, “Do you know this family photo?” Pointing at each image, “Do you know who this is?” Then he spoke quickly and passionately, telling him, “You lost everyone in the photo. You are now left alone.”
“No man is so guilty as you are that God will not pardon. But first, you must repent for the negligence and lack of commitment and love. Then your soul will become empty. He will come and stay.”
Prabhat didn’t follow his argument at all. He was not convinced. It was ridiculous and carried no sense to him.
“You know He suffers for those who suffer for Him. Seek forgiveness from Him.”
“For not having repented.”
“Repentance. For what? For whom?”
“For the departed souls. For His sake. He will pardon you for your sins.”
“It is absurd.”
“Are you not a true Hindu? Are you an atheist?”
“I am a true human.”
“O God, forgive him for his sins.”
“Why should you plead on my behalf? What sin have I committed?”
“It is said that one who prays for the sins of others is blessed. How can you not believe I suffer for your sake?”
“Why should you suffer for my sake? I don’t suffer. It’s absurd. First, why all this argument?”
Prabhat noticed Rahul was adamant. He realized he had had enough. It was hot outside, though it was four o’clock, the sun slanted almost to the west. Silence persisted between them. Prabhat sensed that the argument would not end, so he pretended as though he was not listening to get rid of Rahul. Yet, he gave the impression that he was agreeing with Rahul. To his surprise, he was exultant. “You believe and you will not put your trust in Him, won’t you?” Prabhat said nothing, and he looked tired. Rahul gaped at him and rather sadly. He murmured, “I have never seen a soul as hardened as yours. Forgive him, O God, for his disbeliefs and wilful negligence.”
These things Prabhat never enjoyed talking about this part of life. After a brief silence, Rahul diverted from the questionings and asked, “When is your return flight?”
“Tomorrow evening, I need to leave for Chennai to board my flight to New York in the early hours the following day. From there I will catch a domestic flight for Vermont.”
“Won’t you perform the eleventh-day ceremonies for your parents, according to the Hindu customs?”
“I have to report for duty in the company three days from now. That part …” Prabhat maintained a brief silence, hesitant. But resumed, “Well, Rahul, will you conduct the ceremonies on my behalf?”
“Are you not ashamed of asking me to do the ceremonies? Who has lost kith? You have lost your parents. Therefore, you must perform the ceremonies.”
“I am sorry to trouble you. In that case, I will do it in Vermont.”
“Not in Vermont. But here to propitiate your parents’ spirits.”
“I cannot. Maybe on my next visit when I come back to dispose of the house.” Prabhat stopped a while and resumed in a trembling voice, “Meanwhile, will you do me a favor? Will you take care of the house till I return?”
Rahul nodded his head reluctantly and walked out and marched to his home.
All night Prabhat had mosquitoes biting him, disturbing his sleep on a wooden cot. The house was suffocating for him as he strained his face towards the dim light. He was feeling rather ill and he would have liked to leave earlier. He found the elusive sleep quite painful. Yet, he forced the sleep on him. He was neither completely awake nor completely asleep. Soon, flashes of horrifying images appeared before him. A mysterious voice from a corner of the room, he faintly heard. It was as if the room was walking or rotating with him. It was the mournful voice of his parents calling. His mother was seated on the chair with disheveled hair, sobbing. Maybe she was saying something. He took a few steps, but she remained as far as ever. He saw her torn saree showing marks of her struggle with death, bleeding cuts on her back, and the oozing yellow blood. A creepy feeling in him grew along with her calling in the shadily lit room. Panic in the calling, suggesting that she needed help. He waited a few moments to check if she moved, really. Moments passed. There was no motion. Everything was as still as the starlit sky, and then he saw the yellow blood oozing from the cuts and trickling down the chair. He began walking towards the chair, closing in. Then the voice increased, his legs froze, the room started quivering, everything started quivering, the chair. He heard her scream again… her screaming in wild agony. Then, suddenly, silence hit the room. It lay immobile, as if it had not moved for centuries. There was no more yellow blood.
Jolted from the cot, he opened his strained eyes to the calls of birds, washed his mouth and body in haste, packed his luggage, locked the house, hired a taxi, and headed to Chennai much earlier.
Poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, and book reviewer, K.V. Raghupathi has been writing since the 1980s. He has published two short story collections and two novels. He lives in Tirupati, India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org