“St. Thomas School is seeking applications from teachers to be recruited for this academic year,” I announced to my husband as I handed him his afternoon cup of coffee. He had just come back from work and had finished his evening meal, so he was in a relaxed mood. “So?” he questioned absentmindedly, concentrating more on the delicious taste of freshly made coffee. “My qualifications as a trained teacher should get me the job easily”, I said. I could have knocked him down with a feather---so startled was he with my remark, coming after years of passive submission to his unwillingness to let me work.
“Let us see”, he said, in much the same way that savvy politicians respond with a “Hume dekhna hai.....” when asked to do something for their constituencies. He probably did not want to disappoint me with an outright “NO”
I handed in my application at the school, but while we waited for the response, we spent the following week discussing the pros and cons of my venture. “Why this sudden desire to work?” he asked, still disinclined to let me go and hoping he could make a case against my venture. “It’s nothing sudden”, I said. “Remember I always wanted to work but the birth of Asha immediately after marriage prevented me. You know that don’t you”? I added defensively. Asha was now five years old and went to regular school and was away from nine to four. “But there’s Anoop”, he reminded me, thinking I had forgotten the existence of our two- year old son. “Yes, there is Anoop, but you are here to look after him”, I shot back. A look of surprise as well as horror adorned his face.... surprise because he did not expect a complete handing over of charge. Although he wasn’t the typical Indian male, who did not know the difference between a tea masala and coriander powder. In fact he did little chores around the house, looking after our Dennis the Menace without my assistance was an altogether onerous task.
What about my irregular working hours, he asked, looking for an escape route while referring to the shift hours he had to maintain at the newspaper office where he worked. “That’s what makes it possible for me to leave Anoop with you”, I said. “You’ll be here in the mornings to keep an eye on him till I return at three”. “What about my morning shifts twice a week?” he asked, still holding on to hope.”What’ll happen to the boy then?” “Leela, our good friend and neighbor has agreed to look after him. Anoop is so fond of her and she says she’d love to help us out.” My husband could see I had everything worked out and there was no option but to comply.
Fortunately I got the job and enjoyed my work. The school was nearby and enabled me to make a dash home at lunch time on occasion to ensure that hubby and sonny were faring well. Hubby rose to the occasion and even bathed and fed Anoop patiently and lovingly. The little Anoop who used to cry when he saw me leaving the house was now happily waving goodbye, secured in his father’s arms.
I was at peace. I was at last putting my degrees to good use and doing what I enjoyed most of all. My son was being well looked after. Everything seemed calm and serene.
So it was with great shock that I received a call one day, informing me that Anoop had been admitted to hospital and I should come home immediately. I took permission and left, but found my house empty. My husband had rushed with the boy and not even Leela knew which hospital they had gone to. He had only asked her to call me.
“What happened?” I asked her, unable to fathom what necessitated such an urgent dash. “Well, you know he was running a slight fever in the morning” started Leela. “Yes, but that was because of the change of weather”, I justified. “Yes, but the temperature rose suddenly and he started getting convulsions. Fortunately, your husband noticed it and immediately took him to hospital. He said he’d call you from the hospital.”
I sat by the phone waiting. I cursed our middle class existence which kept most luxuries beyond our reach. I cursed myself for taking up a job in the hope of improving our living standards though it was essentially a love of teaching that prompted me venture in the job. I prayed to all the Gods to protect my son from any serious complications. I prayed to Lord Venkateswara and made a pact with him that I would get the boy’s head tonsured if he ensured that my son came home hale and healthy. I wondered how Anoop was feeling and longed to be by his side, soothing and comforting him.
The telephone rang and my reverie broke. “How is he?” I asked anxiously. “Don’t worry, it is not serious”, consoled my husband. The doctor said the convulsions were due to the high temperature but no damage has been done due to immediate hospitalization.” I noted a ring of pride in his voice and it was perhaps at this point that a sense of guilt entered my mind. I drove it away. “Come to Nilouufer Hospital. I will be waiting for you.” he said.
I locked the door, and took an auto to Niloufer Hospital. My husband met me at the entrance and guided me to the room where my son was lying asleep on the huge hospital bed --- a small helpless heap clutching the sheet with one hand while the other was in his customary pose—thumb in the mouth and forefinger in the nose. His brow had a small frown and I could see that even in his sleep he had disturbing thoughts. “The high fever was due to malaria” my husband whispered. They have given him a dose of quinine.” I rushed to the bed to hold my son and comfort him. I wanted to take him into my arms and chase away all the problems that creased the little brow. I wanted to tell him that everything would be alright now that mamma was here. “Shshh!” hissed my husband “Don’t disturb him. I just managed to lull him to sleep.”
Suddenly, Anoop woke up with a painful grunt and started retching violently. Probably his body was rejecting the quinine. I ran to hold him. “Papa, Papa”, he cried through closed eyes and would not let me hold him. His father scooped him up from the bed and held him close as his body shook with the effort of trying to eject the bitter medicine from his system. He looked weak and crumpled after it was over and with one hand still clutching his father’s, he dozed off again.
I glanced at my husband’s face. He looked tired and exhausted. Eighteen hours of being with a sick child was enough to take its toll even on a devoted mother, leave alone a father who was not used to such situations. I asked my husband to go home and rest and took his place by the bedside. I held Anoop’s hand. How cold it was! My poor child, how neglected he looked. His hair had grown I noticed, and he had become thinner. How long ago was it since I had had the time to observe him so closely? Anoop moved in his sleep and his lips parted to the whisper of “Papa” again.
Three days and nights I spent, watching over him, administering the prescribed medicines and holding him close now and then. At last, I don’t know how he knew from closed lids, but he uttered the magical word “Mamma” My heart felt like parched earth that had just tasted of the first monsoon shower. “My darling son” I said and held him closer still. Perhaps this is all that my heart wanted.