Thursday, December 11, 2014

Goodbye Raju


What shall I say? That I have seen death at close quarters? That I have looked at it minutely, poked and stirred and turned it over. I have dissected it like a frog in a high school lab, looking uncertainly, curiously, even disbelievingly, at its entrails, its veins, its stratified layers. 
I came face to face with death as it came to my child. Almost, almost in my hands

I gaped at it.
I did not recognize it, I did not believe it. I still do not believe it.
Tell me, someone, it did not happen.
Tell me it was a nightmare and I will soon wake up!

It was that fateful evening. Late evening, soon after one of the regular progammes we organize from time to time. We have been doing them for the last almost seven years and it is getting to be a bit routine now. Call it force of habit, working like an automaton, or just because it is expected of us, there we were, holding forth, all the oldies of the city glued to their seats, their bleary eyes fixed on the dais, their ears straining to catch each verse, each rhyme, every little nuance in the poetic recitations of their fellow septuagenarians speaking over the mike.
I was restless and tried not to show it. My thoughts were with Raju at home. Just the evening before he had developed high fever. Very high. Almost touching 107 degrees F. It was almost unbelievable. Was the thermometer faulty? Or did my eyes play a trick? But, there was no doubt that he was burning. My child’s body was on fire, or so it seemed.
It called for emergency measures. Bathing, sponging, bringing down his fever. Raju complied as we sat him up, turned him this way and that, applied wet towels to his simmering torso.
Providence brought home to us two doctors, well-qualified, experienced doctors who advised us on how to handle the situation. Close friends, they were in the vicinity and rushed over. They sat with us an hour, observed and prescribed medication.
The wet toweling continued through the night. Around midnight, when the temperature dropped below 102, I discontinued the sponges, gave him a light cover. He dozed off. I sat watching him, snoozing occasionally, checking his temperature from time to time. All night.
At 2 a.m. I brought him his bedpan and tried to make him pee. That was when I noticed his right arm lying lifelessly by his side, the elbow sticking out at an awkward angle, the arm flung away from the body. I held his hand but it seemed lifeless. I brought his arm back in place and massaged it gently. Had he broken another bone? Or some more bones? It has happened before, more than once. Or was it paralysis of the right side? I examined the hand, the forearm, the elbow, the upper arm, the shoulder. There seemed to be no fracture. He did not wince in pain. So what was it? I pulled him to a sitting position to use the bedpan but he could not balance himself and tumbled over towards the right. It was like dead weight, falling on one side. I gave him the required support, helped him pee, lay him back on bed and straightened his pillow.
We have had many such crises before. Unexplained multiple fractures, spasms and fits, and so much more that would happen suddenly out of the blue. Without warning, without notice, without any preamble. Here was another crisis. This time it looked like partial paralysis or some hidden fracture. I would call the doctor the first thing in the morning.
The night was interminable but Raju seemed comfortable. Comfortable enough. There was no fever in the morning but he lay limp. Limp and mute. The right arm hung uselessly by his side. He reached out with his left hand, gripped his right hand and pulled it back to its proper place.
In the morning the doctor looked in, examined him, his limp right arm and the right side of his torso. “Not a fracture” was his verdict. Not even paralysis. Just numbness, he said, which will go with time.
Can we massage him? Yes, he said. It will help.
So I sat next to him as the attendant gave him his morning meal. I located an old battery-operated massager and tried to use it on Raju’s right hand and arm. As I demonstrated the method to the attendant, Raju’s fingers moved slightly. Ah, I breathed again, he’s getting it back. He will soon be fine.
Any fever? No none. Thank heavens. The worst seemed over and Raju was eating again.
It was a Sunday. But the Akademi programme was slated for the evening, 4pm. Should I go? Should I not? Was it safe? I would observe, watch and decide.
By the afternoon it seemed safe enough for me to venture out for a couple of hours. Raju would be fine with the attendant.
“Call me if there’s a problem,” I instructed. “I will be back by 6 pm.”

“Why are you so serious today? What’s wrong?” I am asked when the session begins.
I smile. “Nothing.”
The programme continues. It is a special poetry session for senior citizens. One old man after another walks up to the dais. Some hobble to the podium and recite their poems. Poems  which they feel have never been written before. Thoughts never before expressed. As one silver-haired man speaks, the others applaud. They share their experiences and are grateful for the camaraderie.
At six o’clock  there are no signs of winding up but I force them to bring the evening to a close. I am in a hurry to get home.
By the time I reach home it is 6.30. My cell phone tells me there was a missed call from Vickram who is in Delhi. Oh, well, I will call back after uploading the evening’s pics, after writing the report and emailing it to the press, to all and sundry. This is the usual procedure after every literary event.
Vickram has, meanwhile, called the attendant and checked on Raju. “He is okay,” he is told and the attendant proceeds to get Raju’s evening milk ready as I send information into cyberspace.
At 7 pm, when I am halfway through, I hear a wheezing and snorting, so I get up from the computer and rush to Raju’s bedside. He is apparently halfway through his milk but seems out of breath and is breathing heavily.
“He is weak and easily tired,” I tell the attendant as I sit by Raju’s side and place an arm around him. “Give him some rest.”
We sit on either side of Raju and stroke him for several minutes until his breathing becomes regular again and he seems normal. Then I get back to the computer saying, “Don’t give him the remaining milk if he protests. Don’t force him.” And return to the files being uploaded.
Five minutes later the attendant informs me: “Raju has finished his milk and is sleeping now.”
It is 7.25 pm now. The attendant has to go out for some work.
“If you need me, just call. I will be back,” he says.
“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “I will manage. He seems to be better.”

I am alone with Raju. There is silence in the house.  I finish my work on the computer by 7.30 when I remember Vickram’s missed call and dial his number.
As the phone rings on the other side I hear a noise from Raju’s bed – something like a cough – and get up to go and look at him.
On the other end of the line Vickram asks: “How is Raju.”
“He’s had his milk and is sleeping. I’m just going to check on him.” I walk into Raju’s room even as I speak on the phone.
Raju’s eyes are closed, his mouth is wide open. He has drooled from one side of his mouth. Actually it is more than a drool: it is a thick reddish liquid that stains the corner of his mouth and his kurta. What could it be? At the inner corner of each eye glistens an unshed tear.
“I’ll get back to you,” I tell Vickram. “Raju doesn’t seem quite right.”
With a hand-towel I wipe the teardrops in the corners of his eyes and then the drool. He does not respond. He does not react. I pat his cheek. There is no reaction, not even the slightest motion behind the closed lids.
I feel his chest but there is no heartbeat. I hold his wrist. The hands are warm but they do not respond.
 “Raju,” I call in rising panic, and touch his lips with my index finger. This is a gesture he never fails to respond to. But this time there is no answering pout. The lips are cold although his face and hands are warm.  
Has he gone? Has my baby left me while I sat just a few feet away from him, unawares? No, there must be some mistake.
Come on, baby, wake up. I pump his chest but to no avail.
I pull him up to sitting position. There is a strange flapping sound. What could it be? I put him down and make him sit up again and again there is that flapping sound. It is the lower jaw, I note; it flaps out of control. O, my child! I support his chin and prop him up.
There is a gurgling sound inside him.  My hopes soar. There is still life.
“Raju,” I shake him. But the lower jaw flaps again. Like an open window loose at the hinges, rattling in the wind.
My mind is in a tizzy. I do not know what to do. I feel like King Lear who, bending over the body of his dear daughter, refuses to believe she is dead. He calls out: “Lend me a looking-glass. / If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, / Why then, she lives.”
Get me a feather, says King Lear. If the feather moves it means there is breath in her. There is life.
“This feather stirs. She lives. If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.”

Get me a feather. Raju cannot die. I touch his lips again. They have become icy. I know by now that the last breath has left my child.
The house is silent. There is just the two of us. Rather, there is just me and what is left of my son.
What do I do now? I rush out, seeking people. I bang on the neighbor’s door, babble incoherently and rush back again.

'' Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/ And thou no breath at all? ''
There is no getting away from it. I must face reality. But, alas for the mother’s heart! Once more I pick him up and once more his lower jaw flaps. Once more I support his chin. Once more I call in vain.
It is 7.30 pm. He has been dead for about five minutes. Why, why did I not come into the room five minutes earlier? I could have held his hand while he made his journey into the great beyond. Alone, all alone. I could have placed his dying head on my lap, kissed his brow and given him comfort in his last moments. Perhaps I could have stayed the inevitable. Perhaps I could have shooed death away. I could have helped Raju hang on a little bit longer. Why, why, why did I delay?
I sit with his limp body in my lap. Like Michelangelo’s Pieta.
He is not dead but asleep. Perhaps, if I call and call enough….
He will reward me with his half-smile and a gentle pressure of the hand.
He will yawn and stretch and grope for his pillow.
And turn over and snooze some more again.

But this is not to be.
By this time the neighbors have gathered in a large crowd at the door.
Put him down, they tell me. Put him on the floor. He has to be readied for his last journey.
Place him on the floor?  No never. I will not put him on the cold, hard floor; I will not lay him at anyone’s feet.
He will have to be bathed and cleaned and prepared for the last rites tomorrow, they tell me.
Nobody will do that for him, I snap back. No stranger will touch his body. Nobody will see the distorted spine, the crooked torso and the emaciated limbs. He is my baby and I will shield him from all curious eyes. I will change him, clean him. I will let no one else touch him.
Raju is cleaned, combed and dressed again in a fresh set of clothes. He is now wearing a white kurta pyjama stitched not so long ago, worn just a couple of times. His face shines with a luminous glow. He has a remarkable aura around him now. My handsome Raju. At peace. His face radiates peace. For the first time the look on his face tells me he is glad to be free from this body that incarcerated him. Free from the pain.
Gently, very gently, we pick up his entire bedding, mattress and all, and place it on the floor. Raju is covered with a white sheet, some flowers strewn on him. The best flowers from our garden where he would sit in his wheelchair everyday. There we let him lie. In his last sleep.

Smoke rises from the pyre. He turns into ashes. He goes up with the smoke.
I sit in a crumpled heap.
I weep. 
दिल   आखिर  तू  क्यूँ  रोता  है
दुनिया  में  यूँही  होता  है
यह  जो  गहरे  सन्नाटे  हैं
वक़्त  ने  सबको  ही  बांटे  हैं  (Gulzar)
And why should I weep? Raju is no longer in this world but he is everywhere. A part of me, a part of my world for evermore. And I know he is somewhere there in a shining world, running freely, on his little feet. Little pink feet that never walked before in this world of sickness and death. He is happy. He laughs. He claps his hands. He can hear, he can speak, he can sing, he can see. He looks up to see the sun shining in a clear blue sky.
Look, look, he is running through endless fields of sunflowers, chasing butterflies.... 
मगर ये साले आँसू क्यों नही बंद होते ?

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