[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Short Story by Devyani Deshpande – Issue.XXXIV : November 2017 ” main_heading_color=”#1e73be” sub_heading_color=”#8224e3″ spacer=”line_with_icon” spacer_position=”bottom” line_style=”dotted” line_height=”1″ line_color=”#1e73be” icon_type=”custom” icon_img=”id^48|url^http://ashvamegh.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Ashvamegh-ICO.jpg|caption^null|alt^Ashvamegh Journal Icon|title^Ashvamegh ICO|description^null” img_width=”48″ main_heading_style=”font-weight:bold;” main_heading_font_size=”desktop:34px;” line_width=”3″ margin_design_tab_text=””]a tale worthy told…[/ultimate_heading]

Devyani Deshpande is an aspiring writer, poet and a Legal Advisor by profession. She is fluid enough to write in both English and Marathi. She writes because she knows no other way. She practices law but loves reviews more than treatise and critiques more than judgments. So it all boils down to the dances with the words, some celebratory, while some poignant. She has recited her poetry on All India Radio. She wishes to keep writing and reciting. Originally from a small town in Maharashtra, she currently lives in New Delhi.


The train arrived at the platform blithely piercing the veil of fog that concealed the tracks. This rare blanket of fog was a welcome adornment to this otherwise banal looking unceremonious station sparsely affected with passengers. This station was situated on one of the busiest routes of the country; many trains would touch and go every day. But the grandeur of the Grand Trunk route had hardly touched the spirit of this small unit just like many others on its line. The lone tea and snacks vendor kept busy on his yellow coloured stall bearing the name and registration number in bold letters. Bright blue, red, and yellow packets of chips embellished his stall from all sides like balloons hung for a birthday party. The platform was narrow and the few double-sided benches with dusty red planks were nearly always occupied.

The train stopped with a slight lurch and loud screech. An exemplary female voice was announcing the arrival of the train from speakers affixed at intervals. I hurled my wheelchair to the location of S4 carriage as was being displayed in the blurry indicator hanging from the roof of the platform. Vasudha followed me, knowing her only duty was to assist me to board the train and be available to lend a hand in case I had trouble reaching my seat. The crowd inside was unthinkable, but not unusual. It is a practice of some small distance travellers to horde into the Sleeper class, slightly more convenient than the General class which is but complete anarchy. All one needs is a waiting ticket. With the visibly peevish assistance of Vasudha, I made my way to my seat on my knees fighting the battalions of irritable passengers, samosa and tea vendors who skillfully squeezed their way out of narrow spaces partly owing to their petite frames, and impassive filthy looking beggars rooted to the ground who treated getting a body part crushed under someone’s feet occasionally as one of the occupational hazards.

It was fully occupied; our berth. Some uncalled for elements always flock these trains; masquerading as if it’s their right to occupy seats whether or not they have tickets. Our confirmed tickets were their antidote. They scattered dispassionately, but without forgetting to steal some sorry glances at me and my wheelchair folded and stowed by Vasudha blocking a part of the passageway.

“This is why. This is why I wanted to come by car. You always love to drag me into this drudgery.” Now that we were seated, Vasudha let out her fume, still not full-fledged, being aware of the full public scrutiny we were in. That poked at her ease way more than the cramped space and suffocation in the stationary train.

“You know it’s a little too far, for just the two of us to drive. And I like trains.”

“Yeah…but even third AC would have been fine by me. Do you know how many people are looking at us right now?”

“There is no fun in third AC in this weather. After how many years have you seen real fog?”

“Hmmm…let it be. It’s as if you don’t understand at all.” Vasudha closed this conversation with her usual unfinished whining which she is afraid of finishing for the fear of hurting me. That is the one thing she fears the most. Maybe that’s what binds us now. The day some ungainly stroke of destiny breaks this flimsy thread, we may fall apart like two distant islands which had not even stood in the same waters since conception.

The curiosity of the crowd dwindled with the train jerking to start. Vasudha, seated to my right, knelt back and closed her eyes. From my vantage point of the window seat, I started relishing the wintery countryside which was, in my opinion, worth all this hassle.

I could understand her, contrary to her claims. In fact, I could understand way too much. If I lost my limbs, she lost a husband who once fit into her definition of an ideal conjugal life. I depended on her for the most part, although I still worked the way I had been prior to this mishap, the beauty of my history-oriented literary profession being that it accommodated my intellect along with my crippled body.

There was no necessity to invite such a drudgery, as Vasudha had termed this journey. They all could very well understand my limitations. But the thought of not seeing my maternal aunt for the one last time was awful. There are some places you just have to be; some occasions you would be most guilty to miss, for it is the people you do it for who validate it above everything else. In any case, the feat was half accomplished now and we were heading home.

The ravishing scent of the misty woods was filling the carriage and overbearing the rancid metallic smell these sleeper carriages endorse. That and the delicacy that is a glass of hot tea in this ambient cool weather prompted Vasudha to relax and get back to her sleep more peacefully. She had plumped up a little, over the course of last few years, accelerating the loss of the youthful appearance that accompanied her until even her late thirties. She was still pretty though, her skin still supple despite evident sagging at places like those below her eyes. Her large striking eyes had lost any palpable humour. The overall expression of it just went to show the wearing of her spirit, not the body. She draped her sarees with utmost impeccability and held her jet-black dyed hair in a voluminous low bun. I always thought in her school she must be one of those gorgeous senior teachers students are secretly in awe of. She loved me, I was sure, but in some another universe where I had working legs and was not an anomaly she would have to lug around.

In the daytime rows of passengers sit facing each other on these berths; almost twice as many as one berth can accommodate. Two adolescent and urban looking boys standing out in that otherwise rural crowd were exploiting the window seat opposite mine, huddled adjacent to each other in that minuscule fraction of space. They had somewhere picked up the game of asking random questions to each other taking turns and attempting smart answers. They had read those questions and answers somewhere on the internet apparently. The slightly elder looking one of them had a smartphone propped up on his lap. These days, the access to the internet has opened up those fields for the teenagers which were obscure for us even as adults, I thought in amusement. We hardly went beyond emails till very recently. The boys spoke in no particular context. It was more frolic than contemplating questions of deep philosophical nature.

I was overhearing their relentless banter until I heard one of the boys throwing a googly with apparent pride. “What knowledge can save your life one day?”

“What knowledge can save your life?” The question struck me as if he had meant to put it to me.

Is there any knowledge that can save everyone’s life one day? Where does one seek this knowledge? Is it that some people are gifted with such piece of useful insight? Is life worth saving after all?

My brain ripened on account of daily encounters with verbal philosophy wasted no time to split the question in thousands of fragments until its inimical corpse lay squirming at me. I would have preferred answering this question some years back, when the earth was still spinning around its axis and I had answers to most of the questions that were put to me. Even then, as I sat reluctantly to take cognizance of this question at this point, I felt I owed it a few memories that had softened now, over the years, but had rooted so deep that they did not need the sharpness of a sword to leave an imprint if a force as unexpected as this one were to hammer my head. But could I answer it better now, if I was speechless in the face of a lot of others?

These memories always started with chaos; chaos that no one had guaranteed will ever subside. I was sure I was stuck. It was blissful to be unaware of reality in the wake of all those anaesthetics that they mercifully fortified me with. The chaos had hit at first stealthily in solitude and gradually took over as the troops of a victor stampede the beaten city at first, before unearthing and looting any valuables it might hold. I had been hit by a truck while on my scooty and injured my spine. I was paralyzed below the waist and they had no idea whether it was reversible. Young Vasudha with a fresh marriage of two years was as numb as I was, perhaps even more; not yet realizing the volume of consequences it might ensue for her. She nursed me, fed me, cleaned me and caressed me till she dropped with exhaustion on the side bed in my hospital room. Sometimes she stayed up all night checking on my pulse and blood pressure; at other times she was seated beside my bed through the night just so she could see me sleeping.  She had gone mute contrary to her usual talkative self. She only spoke to doctors, and nurses, and ward boys. She pleaded, enquired, ordered, and demanded things around in that hospital room with the sole aim of my recuperation.

As the initial ripples settled, she went to school and I stayed home, with my history books for company. A history lover as fanatical as me should have gone to Pune, the history bastion. But I had stayed in Nagpur since the responsibility of parents was on my shoulders, being the only son. They had refused to part with me, insisting me to pursue whatever career I wanted to here in this city, which was enough of a peaceful and urbane place to lead one’s life merrily without missing out on much of the advancements happening around the country. Sadly, they didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of their decision. But I had pretty much already started my career here. The inertia had crept in. So I wrote books here at home, after visiting the subject matters of my interest spread all over India and taking their legends in the lap of my memories to cradle them with leisure in the comfort of my library.

None of it mattered on those initial days oscillating between peaceful oblivion and mortifying consciousness. It didn’t matter what I did for a living, nor what my wife or what anybody else thought of me. It took me a while to realize the gravity of this aftermath, which was probably going to be more painful than the epicentre of this hardship. Vasudha soon found her distraction in her school kids, she had deliberately resumed work early knowing that the lifelong silence that we would have to contain between just the two of us was unbearable to her. Something in her had changed the day Dr. Shahane told her that, not even the news of my eternal paraplegic dependence on her had stirred that.

I was thankful I was not a teacher. Facing several interrogating eyes all through the day was an ordeal much more severe to me when I felt I had been cut in a half like my lower body should not exist. As it is I was in a fix as to how to avoid the deluge of awkward attention I was abnormally getting from any crowd previously known or unknown to me, where I would suddenly appear like an idol emerging from within the depths of the earth. I automatically confined myself entirely to home, stepping out only for periodic check-ups at the hospital.

Mrs. Kulkarni was the one consistent neighbour to visit us after the initial surge of visitors diminished. She was regular even before, with an eyesight as sharp as Sherlock Holmes, spotting the opportunity to catch Vasudha on her busy evenings when she quickly slipped into a cotton salwar kurta from the starched white saree and struggled with the day’s leftover chores, along with the cooking that had to be done, for the most part, without much help from me. I would lose my way in the culinary maze the moment I entered the kitchen. There was no GPS to get me back on track there. Mrs. Kulkarni, with her seniority in age, felt the utmost need to supervise over the young couple with no parental vigilance except for Vasudha’s parents visiting briefly sometimes.

 Mrs. Kulkarni, wearing a haughty expression of contentment in her little life consisting of husband, children, neighbouring women, and maids, stood at the edge of the kitchen and enjoyed her monologue requiring just some nodding here and some humming there on Vasudha’s part.

“But, don’t you think Vasudha, it’s not right for Shyamal to completely refuse to go for Mahalakshmi at her mother in laws? I mean it’s their family ritual. Her mother in law toils so hard for it every year. No wonder there’s no talk between them now.” She spoke as if she was an indifferent unbiased outsider, yet important enough to voice an opinion on things happening around her.

But the centre of her attention had changed now. “What a pity! Poor chap! What has he been left with? God is really cruel.” Her face was normally resplendent with such vivid emotions about me these days. She didn’t speak to me but acknowledged my presence as some kind of a pest engulfing this house.

I shifted my base from the drawing room to my bedroom on such evenings when she visited after Vasudha had shown her inability to offend her by telling her to be less frequent.

In the earlier days of absence of Vasudha the entire day, I would chat with the milkman while he poured the litres of fresh milk from his aluminium cans in the utensil in my hand. The postman would not just dump our mail in the mailbox outside the gate, unlike other houses. He would ring the bell and call me to exchange pleasantries. They both loved how I spoke flawlessly in their rural dialect and knew much more about the things that mattered to them than the others in this suave locality of office mongers. Now the milkman had been replaced with the plastic bags which Vasudha got on her way back home every evening. And the postman stopped walking all the way to the main door from the gate and ringing the bell, when nobody responded to the bell for several days in a row. It was not a logistical trouble; but I had stopped attending to anything that had eyes and could detect and acknowledge that I was no longer the same.

After almost two months of house arrest, Deepak, our new driver drove me to the library which I frequented earlier. It was beckoning since long. This was probably the best way to kick-start the lethargic progression of my nebulous looking career. For a historian, the books only make half of the fodder as it is the real battlegrounds that carry the aroma to make his work appetizing. Nevertheless, I was content in fishing in shallow waters for the time being.

It was a small library but earmarked by me as it had most of the books I preferred on a regular basis. The librarian was a formidable man. He did not like readers who were frequent and had any real interest in reading. After all these years of acquaintance, I had built a rapport of indifferent contempt with him. His cooperation was hard acquired, his steadfast vigilance never wavering for a second. He was unsettled to see me, for the first time in all these years. It was surprisingly easy with him this time. He accompanied me to the history section with a somewhat guilt-ridden and discomfited wordless gesture not knowing how else to react. He showed me around like I was new and did not know how to operate in the labyrinths of bookshelves. In such moments of unsolicited benevolence I wondered how long it would be before I became enough of a man again; the manhood having been snatched away from me in all the ways possible. I didn’t step into that library again for the fear of seeing in the eyes of that man the reflection of the person that I had become.

What could I have done without such well-meaning comrades who stood with me at times as challenging as these? The travesty of human existence is that suffering is universal, yet exceptional at the same time. And it does no good to anyone to be exceptional. At least it did not do any good to me.

In those pleasant afternoons after a bit of a rain had washed away most of the dust lurking around, I would sit in our porch with the spacious rectangular roof lined at its edges with receding rain drops. The porch had a flooring of rustic white cement at a suitable corner of which Vasudha drew a Rangoli every day. It overlooked a gated compound at the outer side of which there lay a vast concrete road flanked by duplex houses and having minimal traffic. The Rangoli was now missing on all days and we had to build a ramp to this elevated porch, so that I could descend into the adjoining small garden, mostly native flower bushes and a few tall mango trees.

My quiet afternoons ended with the kids of some neighbours, including those of Mrs. Kulkarni coming back from school in the auto rikshaws crammed with scrawny children. Sometimes they were already fighting, some minor school fight dragged to the home. The commotion continued for quite a while, till the mothers took charge and ordered them into their respective houses. In that fleeting little world of the autowale uncle, the unruly kids and the authoritarian mothers; I, a home staying young man of thirty, with remote possibility of ever having to engage with the task as demanding such as this, was an imposter; a mere spectator with no business. At those moments of helplessness, I desperately wished for total anonymity and invisibility, so that neither the world nor Vasudha’s quiet tears shed under the spell of those intolerably slow weekends could see me.

After the first bout of overwhelming empathy for me Vasudha had markedly slipped into an omnipresent pity for herself. She dutifully laid out my lunch and dinner; made me tea with extra ginger, and washed the grimy bottoms and knees of my pajamas with bleach when I dirtied them trying to walk with the help of my physiotherapist, but there was little to talk now. She stopped stealthily embracing my waist from behind while I shaved in front of the bathroom mirror. She didn’t instinctively hold my hand when we watched a Shahrukh Khan movie on our drawing room TV. She stopped asking me what sabzi to cook for dinner every evening. My guilt resonated with her aloofness. I ceased wiping my wet hands playfully with her moist padar or dupatta. I slowly forgot how the contours of her waist looked while she slept on her side. I didn’t try to touch her or make eye contact anymore. Two contemporary boarders slept on the same bed night after night. She didn’t object to my withdrawal. Apart from her daily calls to her mother on which she talked in a low voice and replied in monosyllables, her social life had been restricted more or less to Mrs. Kulkarni cajoling and counselling her with her vast stores of wisdom.

“These ashes are from the holy fire at the ashram of Sant Sugamanand Maharaj. It will bring peace and prosperity to those who wear it every day. See I have got you a box full of it! I go there every Saturday. For a long time, I have been feeling this….Vasudha. So I thought I should tell you now; you should come with me once. I am sure Maharaj will have a solution to what keeps you depressed all the time. I feel…. Shirish bhaoji should come too, Maharaj may do wonders with his problem. But then, I don’t know how he will take it. But at least you should come and see once.” Mrs. Kulkarni was speaking to Vasudha in the kitchen in an earnest voice dripping in utter reverence towards the Maharaj. They both were unaware of to their clearly audible everyday conversations being a constant source of annoyance to me. It was further infuriating to hear Mrs. Kulkarni referring to me in a hush-hush manner; like I was the bane she was trying to eradicate from innocent Vasudha’s life.

“But I don’t know…he might get angry with me. He doesn’t believe in all this.” Vasudha’s voice dropped.

“Let’s not tell him in the beginning na. You see it for yourself first and then gradually convince him telling him about your own experience.”

“I have never done this before. I don’t usually go anywhere without telling him.”

“But you are not going to some casual place. It is one of the most sacred places around here. You will feel it in the air there. Maharaj is all knowing. He will know all your troubles when he will first see you.” Mrs. Kulkarni was remarkably persuasive.

I didn’t confront Vasudha. I didn’t want to know whether she really went to a stranger to seek solace from her husband’s incapacity. In this household, religion was what Vasudha conducted in the confines of her Dev ghar. I never happened to find anything interesting in that small space smelling different from the rest of the house. She kept fasts on Ekadashis and Vad Pournima and I ate whatever she gave me on those days. She sang Aartis in front of the idols and I stood there to give her company. We had carried on with this sort of unspoken mutual understanding. But this felt like a treachery; some conspiracy she was indulging in just to hurt me. In the times of every day bringing some new gripping realizations about the limitations of my body, was my unequivocal defeat inching closer? Were we heading to something catastrophic or would this constant nudge of unfulfillment gradually become tolerable and we would be able to live with it forever? Was forever possible for us anymore? I cried in solitude fearing the worst possible scenarios. My legs stretched out stoic and painless, it seemed all the pain that was destined for them accumulated in my figurative heart.

I longed for those days Vasudha and I watched cricket matches on the TV. I was an avid Tendulkar fan. She was more charmed with Dravid’s humility. But not a match went by without us watching it and discussing it over dinner. She would get so passionate at critical moments, I had gotten used to hearing her live commentary running parallel to the one blaring from the TV. She knew much about cricket thanks to catching bits of her students’ noisy lunch break discussions. We would compete in keeping track of the cricketers’ glorious records. In Vasudha’s summer vacations, I would bring ice cream, to team it up with the samosas freshly baked by her. Some middleman had introduced her family to mine and we had married, without much ado for pre-marriage acquaintance. Such was the custom. It seemed we had grown to love each other over time, just as people are expected to.

Deepak would report to his 4 pm duty and break my reverie whenever I was lost in such fruitless nostalgia. He would offer to drive me around, maybe up to Futala lake to see the sun set. Somehow it was most comfortable to talk to Deepak at such moments. Maybe it was since he had never seen me able-bodied. He was a part of my new world with whom I did not associate any memories from past.

Diwali came and brought along Vasudha’s fortnightly vacations. She mechanically cleaned the house, prepared the Rangoli kit and filled up tins with Chiwda, Chakli, and Karanii. We both took it for granted that the lightings on the outer walls of the house or on the porch were utterly unnecessary. Few neighbours called on to share their Diwali delicacies with us. The husbands made appropriate jokes, while the wives complained of their toils increasing twofold with the kids vacationing for Diwali. Their visits were welcome respites from the monotonous co-existence of a young couple with zero enthusiasm for the festival.

Almost a year later Vasudha’s parents came to pay a visit. They had not come as frequently during this time perhaps fearing the awkwardness of our proximity in these circumstances. It was the weekend I had to go for a routine check-up. Her father sat me up in the drawing room and drank tea. Her mother restlessly hurried to the kitchen and stayed there for a long time. Vasudha’s father started with asking routine feedback of my health and went on to ask in a steady yet concerned voice, “Have they told you there is nothing further they can do?” It seemed to me the fate of my marriage with Vasudha hung miserably on the answer to this question.

I went with Deepak for the check-up that day, insisting Vasudha to stay back and spend time with her parents. Dr. Shahane, pleased with my overall tenacity of sticking to life nodded and cut some medicines off his prescription. I repeated to him the question I had put several months ago and he repeated his answer. “Go to Mumbai”, he had said. There was a senior doctor he had recommended to see. However bleak it may be, hope lay in Mumbai, with senior Dr. Mule. I had a sudden urge to be quickly seated opposite to Dr. Mule one moment and jump off the window of his cabin, the next. I didn’t want Vasudha to come. Though it all seemed like my covert attempt to gain her back, I surprisingly wanted to keep her distant while I watched the utmost important verdict of my life unfold.

I had to go to Mumbai. I had made up my mind that day in Dr. Shahane’s cabin while he sympathetically blabbered on about all possible ifs and buts. Vasudha would have readily accompanied. Maybe she was just waiting for the right time to broach this subject all this while. But I had recently developed a fantasy in which I came back from Mumbai and standing at the gate, called out for Vasudha, smirking lightly while she came running to me in astonishment.

Prashant was my childhood friend; my go-to person in times of need. He agreed to come; without going into the details of why Vasudha was not privy to this. I convinced him this was solely to seek an opinion. An opportunity soon presented itself in the form of Vasudha having to go on a school tour which she frequented. Sometimes it was election duty; at other times checking Board papers or a school trip. She would be gone for a week. She had brought a boy to look after me all day. But he could be managed with some more money.

On the next day of Vasudha’s departure, we flew to Mumbai to seek Dr. Mule’s opinion if any surgery could cure my paralysis. We were neatly back in two days. Vasudha did not suspect a thing as we were flawless in our execution.

“Don’t you ever think about it. There is no question of any discussion on this. Are you mad?” Prashant blasted me off. After assessing my reports, Dr. Mule had told us about a certain spinal surgery. But spinal surgeries are super risky. There was a 90% chance I could die. But there was also 10% chance I could live to see myself dance with my kids. It was funny how these medical professionals came to exact figures with such precision assigning life and death some numbers with a denominator of 100. But maybe they just rounded them off for convenience, while it was still possible there was 10.2% chance of me living.

I didn’t tell Prashant there was 90% possibility of me going for it.

In 10% of cases, I would have freed Vasudha from the clutches of my slavery.

In any case I was doing it all for her. I felt like a martyr. Now that I had such glorified notions of my decision, I started having happy visions of life after these miserable times were over; in one way or the other. The thin book with the picture of Sant Sugamanand Maharaj lay on the side table of Vasudha’s side of the bed. The world as it looked from my porch had come to a halt. Even those noisy children didn’t disturb me anymore.

Deepak didn’t come that day. I manoeuvred my wheelchair down the ramp and rolled on to the concrete road. It was the first time I was going for an evening walk. People stared in disbelief as I had to put a lot of efforts to launch myself ahead. I was not used to pushing my wheelchair. Sometimes the world as a pedestrian is so liberating if only nobody stares at you. The small to and fro trip to the nearest market took a long time, maybe an hour or two. But I was not counting. Even the fear of Mrs. Kulkarni seeing me and making some inappropriate comment didn’t touch me. I bought some fresh vegetables and a marble cake. Vasudha liked marble cake. As I entered the gate of our compound, Vasudha’s scooty put on a side stand at an unusual spot blocked my way to the porch ramp. She was back from school at her everyday time.

My entry made some noise apparently; since Vasudha came running from the front door without even having to call her. Her face flushed, and saree dishevelled; eyes smudged with tears and her voice out of breath, she clutched my arms and cried with the most unnatural voice I ever heard coming from her.

“Where did you go! I had told you never to step out without Deepak. I have searched you in the whole world for the last one hour. I even called Prashant bhaoji to come and help me find you. You nearly killed me, you brute!! What would have I done without you?” She cried for an hour and didn’t speak to me for two days.

She is an ordinary woman and I am a below ordinary man. But perhaps at all times, life; howsoever it may be, is preferable to death. Maybe this was the knowledge that saved my life. Or perhaps it was the knowledge that someone, even for a fraction of a second wished for my life over everything else. I still cannot say for sure what it was. I was glad the boy sitting on the opposite berth had not asked it to me

The two young boys had long moved on to another game on their smart phone. It was getting darker outside as dusk approached. The lights inside the train compartments were switched on. And Vasudha still slept, the jerks of the moving train tilting her head mechanically towards me till it dropped on my shoulder.