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A 38-year-old woman died... just like that

Last updated on: March 07, 2014 20:43 IST

A 38-year-old woman died... just like that

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Renu Balakrishnan

Renu Balakrishnan's heartrending story about a mother's love. A Women's Day Special.

Excerpted from Potluck, a collection of short stories by an eclectic group of writers -- working mothers, single women, a Catholic priest, a Hindu monk, executives and, yes, even newly-weds.

She lay so still, dressed in her red bridal sari; the vermillion sindoor in the part of her hair. Rahul and I stood, side by side, close by her. The real she had only emerged in death. Neat. Calm. Composed.

The door swung open, toppling the waste basket. Sweet wrappers, pencil shavings and, oh no, cans not totally empty when junked oozed their last sticky drops onto my classroom floor. Mrs Mukherjee stepped over the mess and marched up to my desk.

"Mrs Mukherjee, please take a seat."

She stood there, dug into the tatty cloth bag drooping from her shoulder and extracted a notebook. She held it up -- Rahul Mukherjee. English Composition. She ruffled through the pages, found what she was looking for, and held it up to my face.

"What is the meaning of this?" she said.

I didn't need to see it, I knew what it was. I had written it earlier that day.

"Rahul's written absolute rubbish and you praise his neat handwriting? We don't need your... your patronage, you know Ms... Ms...."

"Mrs Rao. Rahul was restless, Mrs Mukherjee. He seemed kind of... lost, you know..."

"No, I don't know, Mrs Rao. All I know is that his restlessness is none of your business. You teach him English and I'll handle his restlessness."

Mrs Mukherjee slammed the book on my desk and sat herself down. Her fingers tapped on my desk, the fingernails chewed down to tiny half moons on grubby fingers. Her messed up hair escaped from a pony tail. She wore a kurta that could have come from a garbage heap. She's sobbing, but no tears come to her eyes.

"Hrraah. Mrs Rao, I don' want to have to speak to you again. Rahul is my precious boy. My precious..." She grabbed the book, popped it back into her bag, glared at me and swept out. The door swung ferociously on its hinges. I let out my breath in relief when she left.

The telling and retelling of Rahul's mother's tales took on the dimension of an urban legend in the teachers' staff room of the St Stanislaus High School for Boys that term. We sat in that room with its banana coloured wall on warm, slippery vinyl covered sofas, munching Marie biscuits and drinking sweet tea, discussing it.

I defended both the mother and the son. The senior teachers tut-tutted. What she thinks she knows, they said; she is fresh from B Ed college, brimming with fanciful ideas. The boy is just a spoilt rich kid, they said, and the mother is just a dominating quarrelsome type.

Ignore them, they said. Fob them off.

The day after his mother's visit, after the bell shrilled the end of another day which had disappeared beneath multitudinous teacherly tasks, I found Rahul hanging around my desk. His hair flopped over his shining forehead. His ears stuck out. He swallowed. I waited. He said nothing.

"Yes, Rahul?"

"Mummy asked can I stay here with you till she comes to fetch me. I'm not to go on the school bus no more."

"Anymore. Yes, of course you can. Would you like to help tidy the library cupboard or do you want to read or just hang around? It's your choice."

Excerpted from Potluck: A Literary Collection From The Critique Group, published by BecomeShakespear.com, Rs 195, with the publisher's permission.

You can buy the book here.

Please click NEXT to find out how this tale continues....


Photographs: Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh

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From then on Mrs Mukherjee came to collect Rahul from the school at the end of the day. Always dishevelled; always clutching the same bag; always frowning.

Her complaints became routine. Either I was too easy or too hard on Rahul. Sometimes she sat glaring at me while I marked books or wrote my lesson notes for the next day. She threw warning glances over her shoulder at me as she hustled the little boy out of the class.

One day she stopped coming. Thank the stars. Her gaze sent the funnies down my spine. She and her ratty bag. But strangely, I missed her visits.

I made James Johnson, the class genius, reluctantly share the front seat with Rahul. I hoped that some of James's eager-beaverness would rub off on this boy. All I got was a call from an irate Mrs Johnson.

After a curt good-evening-sorry-to-disturb-you-at-home, she said, "Mrs Rao, please change James's seat. He's miserable sharing a seat with that... that boy. Apparently, he mumbles all the time and acts quite crazy. James is scared. James threatens to stop coming to school; my husband and I are very worried. I quite understand that child's behaviour after what happened, but maybe a psychiatrist can help him, not the school..."

"What do you mean 'after what happened', Mrs Johnson?"

"His sister's death -- tragic, I believe; some accident when they went on vacation last year. But what can we do? And why should James suffer and sit beside this mad..."

"That's quite enough, Mrs Johnson. I will look into this," I said.

No one in the staff room knew the details, though some remembered a newspaper article about a 10-year-old girl's death in an accident in Mussoorie... or was it Kodaikanal? Some hill station. Tragic.

But what can one do? Life goes on, and bizarre behaviour in school cannot be tolerated. It upsets others.

Besides, Rahul doesn't look as if he's grieving; just lazy and unkempt. And the mother! Really. Can't she pull up her socks and be there for this child after losing the first?

I pushed through the swarm of boys at play and went back to my classroom. Rahul was at his desk. He looked up when I came in.

"Don't you want to play, Rahul?"

"No, Miss."

"Are you going by the school bus nowadays? I don't see your mother coming to fetch you."

"No, Miss. Daddy collects me."

"Right. Rahul, could you help me with the bulletin board pictures? Just hand them to me one by one and I'll pin them up."

That evening, Rahul's father, dressed in a well cut black suit, got out of the car when he saw me with Rahul at the school gates. "Mrs Rao? Pleased to meet you, ma'am. Rahul talks about you so much," he said.

"Mr Mukherjee, could we can we talk in private some time?" I asked. We agreed to meet at Cafe Blue Haven.

When I got there, Mr Mukherjee was already seated at a table. He was staring out of the window, a folded newspaper on the marble table top. He was startled as I pulled up a chair and sat down opposite him.

"I haven't seen Mrs Mukherjee around, of late,” I began as we waited for our coffee to arrive. "She is ill. She's at home. Resting. Some sort of viral infection," he said.

Then he paused and said, "Mrs Rao, the truth is, she's... she's... she hasn't recovered from the death of our daughter. None of us have, you know. It is a nightmare. She's on anti-depressants and they make her sleepy all the time. Sleepy and confused. I should have spoken to you about this earlier."

Excerpted from Potluck: A Literary Collection From The Critique Group, published by BecomeShakespear.com, Rs 195, with the publisher's permission.

You can buy the book here.

Please click NEXT to find out how this tale continues....


Photographs: Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

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Joining a tour group for a trip to Mussoorie was Mrs Mukerjee's idea. The kids would have other kids to hang out with, and Mr Mukherjee could sleep in the hotel if he didn't want to sight-see; and she could relax and enjoy herself and not have to organise them minute by minute. And it proved to be a great holiday: Delicious food, fun and games and the pug marks and sounds in the distance almost made up for the lack of any sightings of the big cats.

On the last day of the trip, the mists came down heavily. The tour guide hustled them, shivering despite shawls and monkey caps, to bring down the luggage and load the van early.

They needed to drive through a scenic, winding, narrow route and reach the next hotel some two hundred kilometres away. They had to reach before the early sunset totally drained the pale light from the winter sky.

The Mukherjees, under Mrs Mukerjee's efficient control, were the first to pack, load and take the best seats in the van, beside the driver with the large clear glass affording them a panoramic view of the verdant hills.

Two hours down the winding road the driver could no longer ignore the now urgent cries for a 'pee stop'.

"Hang on, you guys," he laughed. "Let me get to a wider bit." He turned the next corner "Ah. Here we go." He slowed; the van's engine roared and then murmured into silence.

The narrow road distended into a wide apron over a deep ravine. Quiet. Lashsha lashsa -- a stream, wended its way down the rocky slopes. Across and beyond, a row of hills stretched their emerald tips against the grey sky. The children tumbled out of the bus.

"Waterfall, water..." cried the Mukherjees' daughter running to the edge of the cliff. Suddenly the powdery earth crumbled beneath her little feet and carried the girl with it; mud and child hurtled down into the darkness.

Mrs Mukherjee ran to the edge of the cliff and peered into the void as her world crumbled before her, mouth open in unspoken warning, her hand still extended... "Your bag, beti."

A hidden shrub extended its sharp arm and the child clutched at its illusory safety.

"Maa..." a ghostly whisper came up from the ravine. The shivering and frozen parents found their collective voice to wail in fear and disbelief.

Mr Mukherjee grabbed his wife a second before she could leap down, and drew her away from the treacherous edge. The terrified mothers of the other children grabbed their offspring and pulled them away from the treacherous edge.

"Maa..."

Mr and Mrs Mukherjee and the others in the bus ran up and down looking for help but there was not a soul in sight. They tried to call out. There was no rope in the van.

Some walked to the nearest village and returned three hours later with a group of villagers with them. Nothing can be done, said the villagers No one can go down the treacherous rock surface slick with moss. Helicopter? None. And how will it go down this narrow ravine?

The villagers, the tour guide and the driver huddled in a tight anxious group and looked at the Mukerjees. The afternoon sun scattered its light on the three.

The boy said, "I'm thirsty, Ma..."

The sound of the slap broke into the whispers of the groups around them. "Water? You want water? You want water? Water..." The shrieks kept on till the husband held her close and smothered them against his chest.

The boy pressed his hand to his cheek. He sobbed quietly. And the father reached out and drew him to his side.

The sun had given them a fair chance and now decided to slip down and continue its journey to the other side of the earth. Its waning light warned of the inky darkness to come. "Maaa..."

The group around the villagers came to a decision. They beckoned and Mr Mukherjee looked up, prising his son's hand loose from its convulsive clutch on his shirt. The boy sat up.

"What are you saying! Ask my daughter to let go and drop to her death in the ravine! I can't!"

You have to, said the villagers. There are just a few minutes of light left, the child will come to a quick end; once it is dark, the wild animals in the ravine will maul her.

"How can I tell her? And even if I tell her she won't do it."

Then ask her mother to do it, said the villagers.

Mr Mukherjee sat by his wife. She looked up. His arm was gentle around the taut shoulder.

He told her.

I lay awake most of the night after my meeting with Rahul's father and picked up his telephone call on its first ring the next morning.

Mrs Mukherjee had died. I knew enough not to ask how a 38-year-old woman could die just like that one night.

The cremation was to be that afternoon.

"Mrs Rao, could you keep Rahul with you for the day? The house is full of people and..."

"Keep him with me? You want me to bring him to the crematorium, Mr Mukherjee?"

"No Ma'am. Oh no. I don't think..."

"It's your decision, sir, but I think Rahul needs to see, to say... to say goodbye this time. Please think about it and let me know."

Rahul and I stood quietly, till they lifted his mother's body to carry it away. Then we turned and walked, hand in hand, through the throng of the weeping family. Our steps were firm; our gaze ahead.

The mother had to fulfil her promise. The child had waited.

"Baby girl," she'd called down that valley that afternoon.

"Let go. Let go, my darling. Ma will catch you."

Excerpted from Potluck: A Literary Collection From The Critique Group, published by BecomeShakespeare.com, Rs 195, with the publisher's permission.

You can buy the book here.


Photographs: Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

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