Five more minutes and he would have died, huffed the gangly med intern to the tight bunch of harried faces jogging along the heavily air-conditioned corridor.
That’s all Gajodhar heard over the din and bustle of the emergency room as he was expertly wheeled by the nurses into an anti-septic, green operating theatre.
The imperceptible prick immediately took the load off his frail chest and Gajodhar relaxed for the first time since he blacked out in the toilet. What was it 4:15 am? 6? Kya maloom? But it does feel nice to be able to breathe easy again, he thought. In and out. In and out. Just like yog nidra at the Professor’s camp in Mungher last summer. A liquid peace calming his whole being starting from the toes and gradually making its way up to his crown chakra.
Strikingly, every time he shut his eyes in Shavasan, he was transported from that quaint village in Bihar to amma’s kitchen in the pine-scented hills of Mallital. His 10-year-old frail frame, nice and warm under the thick layers of a magenta Bhutia sweater, waiting for amma’s piping hot gul-gule as the sweet smell of cow dung and wet mud permeated the freshly daubed chulha-room, a little way off the main Tiwari Sadan according to Kumaoni tradition.
To Gajju, amma was an angel in her cotton dhoti, all aglow in the golden light of her chulha, churning out delicacies – singal, dubke, dal wade, singori and gutke—for her pet. The homecoming from his hostel at Birla Vidya Mandir every winter was the high point of Gajju's life.
An uncharacteristic languor soon spread over him, and little Gajodhar slowly shut his eyes, despite himself. The pure white LED lights of the cardiovascular operating room suddenly turned blood red under his closed eye-lids. Confused, he raised his little katori and called out to his beloved mother, 'amma meinkele de'. Slowly, one by one, scarlet snowflakes drifted down lazily onto gnarled outstretched hands, which were no longer a 10-year-olds.
Gajodhar gasped. But a black miasma soon enveloped everything like thick Cephalopod ink in slow-motion, except for the fringe of delicate fairylights blinking in protest. Underneath, a teenager suddenly ran across the symmetrical chabutara of his sprawling Rajasthani haveli swirling two phuljhadis in oblong silver trails, before the unique reflector technology swooped everything in a homogenous light field and Gajodhar fell into a dreamless anesthetic blur.
On Diwali evening, after 29 excruciating days in the hospital, we finally got grandpa home. 'It was touch and go', the specialist sighed, signing the release form with a flourish as he looked at us over his rimless retro glasses and wished us, 'Good luck, see you next week', professional smile primly in place.
The Medanta-Golf Course route via the old Wazirabad Road running along the Rail Vihar apartment blocks looked clearer because Google Maps showed a long red snake of dense traffic along IFFCO Chowk-MG Road. So we took it for a change.
As our Innova glided along at a steady 40km/hr, we could see knots of happy people gathered at every pavement shop in Banjara Basti, talking and laughing as they picked up hand-crafted terracotta urlis, gaudy Laxmi-Ganesh murtis and shiny diyas. In the backdrop, an Aurora Borealis of dancing particles occasionally splattered across the vast blackness of the Amavasya sky raining twinkling droplets below.
Inside, as grandma wearily wiped the foaming spittle at the edge of his cracked lips with her embroidered white malmal hanky, there was just the droning whir of the air con and that hint of hospital smells mingled with tired human odors. Through drooping eyelids, we took the scene in, barely able to react to the sensory overload outside. A few audible sighs escaped us and we leaned further into our rexine seats zombie-like.
Turning into our service lane was like entering a grand marriage spectacle. Strings of twinkling lights glittered in every balcony to a pre-set Chinese rhythm - on-off, on-off, on-off, green, on-off, on-off, on-off, pink… ; while delicate paper lanterns fluttering in the cool breeze threw intricate mandala patterns on the freshly-white washed balcony walls. Our condominium was completely in sync with the all pervading gaiety, except for one balcony on the 10th floor.
At the porch, we gently lifted him onto his new wheelchair and this time took the ramp to the lift instead of the two-stairs. The nip in the air was palpable as we negotiated the buzz around us, a hello here, a hi there.
'Arre wah, uncleji is back, that’s wonderful', smiled Niva from ground floor dressed in a mauve gota-patti kurti typical of Meena Bazaar. 'Happy Diwali guys,' she wished us while sticking the golden Lakshmi Pada on either side of the door making sure they faced inwards.
Hearing her, Mrs Gupta from 001 B peeped out and nodded her greetings too, balancing a large aarti thaali in her bejeweled hands. 'Pooja khatam karke aati hoon, theek hai,' she whispered in grandma’s ears, patting her back gently in that 'all will be well, believe me' gesture of cronies.
The lift soon pinged its presence on GF and out stepped the chubby Srivastava twins dressed in identical maroon and cream kurta-payjamas. Mr and Mrs Srivastava looked very pleased seeing us, and hugged each one Dipawali ki shubkamnayein before touching grandma and grandpa’s feet.
Slowly but surely the spirit was rubbing off on each one of us. And so the sight of our front door in complete darkness was quite a shock. Even the mango leaf toran we had made last Puranmasi, had shriveled to a skeletal relic adding to the eerie effect.
Right across in stark contrast, the Kumars’ varnished door was alight with fancy lamps and a lush marigold bandarwal entwined with sweet smelling roses and rajnigandha. The swastik alpana in bright yellow, red and green was outlined with kundan diyas, and we all stood still a while struck by the glitter and glamour.
At that moment, all was forgotten. The nerve wracking days outside the ICU, the long-drawn nights spent on cramped steel benches, the non-stop running to doctors or the medicine counter, the B positive blood bags, the fevered prayers, the tasteless hospital thalis and the endless cups of tepid tea. What mattered was the celebration and the homecoming. And we were toh fully charged by now.
More than any of us, grandpa was excited. Waving his petite hands, still plastered with an assortment of tell tale band aids, he seemed to say, 'Chalo, chalo, jaldi karo' in a raspy mumble. Words weren’t as forthcoming this evening, but his whole being resonated with an infectious urgency.
This had always been his favourite time of the year. Those lazy summer holidays as we lay under the machchardaani on the rooftop khatias with our cousins, staring at the star-studded desert sky, we heard about how at just 15, he cycled all the way from his sleepy haveli in Jhunjhnu to the annual Diwali mela near Jaipur, to see the sensational aakash tara being launched. Or that time he nearly lost his eyesight to an errant anar that burst like an oon bomb at the mere touch of the jil jil pencil. Dadaji’s Diwali tales were legendry, and with each recounting we were teleported deeper into his sepia dream.
Now, at 76, the season of joy and hope was also that one time he could overlook his debilitating coronary condition, compounded by blood pressure shenanigans and chronic diabetes; and indulge his sweet tooth. Oh the utter delight of biting into a fresh piece of crumbly milk cake! Just like amma’s khoya singoris wrapped in Molu leaf cones. The pleading look in his twinkling eyes said it all, and back to reality, we promptly got to work. He was very much the head-of-the-house and one lift of his brow was enough.
Pottering in the modular kitchen, after serving a round of adrak chai, Badi bahu, that is our mom, measured out coarse ground chakki atta onto a parad and added some roasted semolina to make the gul gule kurkure. Besides the usual gur, sauf and ghee, she mashed in an over-ripe banana and some kesar soaked in hot milk – another of grandpa’s favourites.
And while dadi, very slowly, settled him in the sanitized confines of his comfortable bedroom along with the elders: the grandkids – from toddlers to tweens to freshmen, rushed to the pooja room to dig out last year’s lights, lamps, lanterns, diyas and herbal rangoli colours on cue.
'Siddarth yaar, uppar se baksa nikaal de…'
'Goluuuuuu, get the seedhi na…'
'Babbu wash the new diyas first hanh otherwise they’ll not soak the oil properly.'
'Mummyyyy… where is the sarson ka tail?'
'…. Oh, ho swastika theek se banao na, it’s the other way round bhai…'
And from the kitchen, 'Arreeee…see to it that Lakshmima’s feet are coming into the house not going out, theek hai?'
Someone switched on Shape of You, and instantly jukebox requests started pouring in from all directions.
Chitiyan kalaiyaan lagao…nahin Raghupati Raghav bachchon…no, no Katie Perry bhaiya…Dingle bells, dingle bells please na Kuku didi…
The festive frenzy was such that within an hour our house was all aglow with colourful lights and shimmery decorations. A plate of melt-in the-mouth mithai from Nathu halwai materialized out of nowhere as did a basket full of fragrant flowers. It was difficult to believe that just a few moments ago we were in the ICU lobby, as we slapped each other in glee, laughing at silly jokes while decorating the mandir for the evening aarti.
The mahurat was 7:28 pm and we didn’t have much time to while away, so we decided we better get dressed. Suitcases were pulled out from underneath the large master bed and silk suits wrapped in old cotton bed-sheets along with naphthalene balls were extricated. It was all very hurried, but nothing that a quick steam iron couldn’t fix. Grandpa put on a kathai silk kurta, a simple enough task, but one that took ages today, with the stitches along his sternum still quite raw.
Amma was so particular about her clothes, he thought, looking at her coloured photograph besides dad’s debonair black and white pic above the pelmet in his bedroom. And even though the sandlewood garland hid most of the frame, the fine features typical of the kulin khandaan and the expensive woolens were proof of their comfortable stature in pahari society. Such a long, long time ago, he sighed, almost sixty years since we left Tiwari Sadan behind.
Staring at the photographs from this angle, Gajodhar could see his own reflection on the glass, a splitting image of his recently-deceased mom and he took a deep breath. As the elder son of the family, he had felt a strange calm descend upon him ever since he stood at the ghat in Haridwar performing amma’s last rights to the soothing sound of the crystal clear Ganga lapping the stone stairs.
The commotion in the living-room, pulled him back from the ghat, where he invariably strayed these past few months. A temporary mandir was set up in the open baithak, around a huge poster of Lakshmi and Ganesh. Everyone lustily sang Jai Laxmi Mata to the beat of the ghanti and cymbals. Amid the distribution of prasad and the exchange of good wishes that ensued, dadaji fervently reached out for that one switch which would light up a thousand bulbs all over the house. His glee on orchestrating that spectacle was childlike and for a long time he just sat admiring the view to his heart’s content. It most definitely was his favourite time of the year. The descending chill, a houseful of grandchildren, the appetizing smells wafting from the kitchen mingling with the pleasant aroma of the satvik Venu Madhuri dhoop from Iskon. Gajodhar was a merry 10-year-old once again.
'If we do not switch on every bulb in the house, how will Goddess Lakshmi know where to bring all the good luck and gold coins?' he mimed in mock exasperation, and we went sprinting in all directions to light her path. The back verandah, alleys, storeroom, rooftop barsaati and even the garage were fully lit on Diwali night to welcome the Gods. Special aipan stickers from our kuldevi’s mandir in Dwarahaat lined the entire circumference of our two-storey apartment that seemed to glitter with an inner radiance every Diwali.
Dinner was a modest affair of mixed veg tehri, bhatt ke dubke, pahadi raita, gutke and moong wade. By 9:30 pm, the elders called it a day and retired to bed leaving the kids free to join in the community celebrations at the club downstairs. The masti went on way past midnight, when all of us creeped in and after taking a quick peek into grandpa’s room, just to reassure ourselves he was alright, fell into sweet slumber, after a very long time.
23rd October. 6 am. The orange sun that rose on the horizon next morning, promised a beautiful day. The kids did a quick jai-jai at the mandir and ran into his room. 'Dadaji, dadaji utho', pleaded the littlest one, 'utoh…utoh...'
'Utoh na dadaji…' she insisted tugging at his kurta sleeve.
Only a beatific smile playing on his face and a half eaten gul-gula in his tight fist.
It was after all, the perfect homecoming!