He looked at her as she flipped the pages of an album. She stopped at a page and was so involved in the activity that she did not even notice his presence. He saw a faraway look on her face as she traced something with her finger. “Oh, she’s going through a flashback experience,” he thought. He moved closer to find that it was his father’s photo she had been looking at. What mixed reactions that photograph evoked! While his mother’s eyes moistened with nostalgic emotion he himself felt an icy indifference.

His father had held a top position in a government organisation. His mother had often spoken of the hard work that had helped him to be elevated to that state. Unfortunately, frequent official parties where liquor flowed freely had turned him into a boozer. Don’t we all know where that can lead? He became a slave of Bacchus. Unmindful of his beautiful wife’s protests, unthinking about the four young sons he had to look after, he drank himself to death. He recalled vividly, the day his father died... His mother was crying bitterly, relatives were gathered around with sorrowful looks on their tired faces, but his brothers had dazed, anxious looks on their faces, wondering perhaps whether their educational ambitions would be nipped in the bud. Only he felt, not happy, but a weird kind of relief. Now his mother’s attention would be centred around him, he thought.

His father’s indifference towards him had cut into his very soul. He wondered why he was born to be different from his brothers. He was what kind people called ‘differently abled’. He was in fact a ‘slow learner’ and while his brothers sailed through their schooling years with distinction he was still struggling to pass primary classes. His developmental milestones were so different from those of normal children. He remembered fondly how his mother had encouraged him to walk at the age of four when others were running. He watched other children younger than him going to school with their colourful uniforms and bags, chattering excitedly. His perceptive mother got him enrolled into a regular school (by pulling a few strings) but he was sent home and told he had to go to a ‘special school’. The special schools would not take him in as he had no obvious deformity. Barring the slur in his speech, and a slight hunch as he walked by dragging his feet, he had no physical abnormality. He had grown into a strapping young boy and as for looks, he could give his brothers a run for their money. All because of the several pujas that his mother had performed for him and the fasts that she had undertaken. All this while his father had gone about as if he didn’t exist.

After his father’s death, his mother’s world revolved around him. She engaged a tutor for him and ensured that he passed the school-leaving examination (after three attempts). He saw the look of pain in her eyes as he struggled to grapple with maths and civics. It was only her ambition, coupled with his own desire to be equal with his brothers that was the driving force in his laboured efforts. It tortured her to see that he did not recognise the fact that he could never be equal to them. One day, it did dawn on him and thereafter, he gave up the battle to be on par with them.

“Why me?” he had often asked himself, but got no answer. Perhaps it is my karma. But how was he to atone for the sins of his last life when he didn’t know now what they were? If karma can decide the fate of one’s current life, then surely, his next life would be good, because he had chosen to stay back with his mother and look after her while his brothers had flown the nest, to make their fortunes abroad. “Does he have any other option?” his brothers had sneered and left the job of caring for their mother to him. He may not have got swank jobs like them but he was able to hold on to a small data entry job, more for the prestige and manliness of doing a job than for the small amount he received on pay day. By God’s grace, they were not in financial distress as his mother drew a substantial pension and the brothers sent a monthly sum, to assuage their guilt of having abandoned their mother.

Suddenly, his mother noticed his presence and said. “Come, sit here next to me.” He felt a warm glow of affection for her. Now she was past sixty-five, and though her face didn’t reflect those years, her limbs had lost their strength, which was why she needed a helping hand. Added to this, she demonstrated a gradual forgetfulness. The prognosis on that had been that she was on the path to Alzheimer’s. He himself was thirty now but unmarried and with the limited mental resources at his command had tried to make her as comfortable as he could. He ran errands for her, tried to help her to remember by suggesting various ways such as writing a diary, maintaining accounts and so on.

Now, as was his wont he went obediently and sat next to her. These past few years he had schooled himself to give in to her every wish. He wanted to make her happy. He never wanted to see her disturbed about anything, considering how much she had toiled to bring up the four brothers.”Here, see this photograph”, she said. “Doesn’t your dad look handsome ?” “Yes”, he said, more to acquiesce than to express an opinion. He had tried to push all those feelings  to the innermost recesses of his mind after his father’s death but now they came hurtling back, mocking him.

Why were his brothers always encouraged, motivated  and helped by father while he himself was generally ignored? Because he was not normal? Was that his fault? He wished his father would at least scold him, which was an indirect acknowledgement of his presence. But it was too much to expect.

While these emotions were running through his mind, his mother started talking, softly, as if to herself. “He was fond of you too dear, but was scared of talking to you directly lest his feelings of guilt and helplessness be revealed to you. He didn’t want that to happen. Remember the day when the Mumbai riots happened? He went to your school first, looking for you. He knew the others could find their way home even if their school bus was stopped. It was you he was worried about. He was panic stricken when he was told the bus had left. He reached home to find that you had not come home yet. He went out again looking for you, roaming the streets for almost an hour. How weary he had looked when he returned and how that look of tiredness vanished when he saw you safe at home. After that he decided that he must ensure your well being throughout life and opened a fixed deposit of ten lakhs in your name.”

She turned the page in the album, looked closely at another photo and started talking again. But he heard nothing except the words ‘It was you he was worried about’.

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Saras Rao

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