The last thing I remember is people stepping over me. It seems unreal now that I think of it. Did it actually happen? The mind-numbing screams…were they that loud and scary before they died to a whimper? The reverberations tell they were but they could also be voices in my head. They get louder in darkness…I feel tired already. Maybe it’s the breathing. Because that is the only force I’m exerting right now. The crumpled chest has not made it any easier. It is difficult to imagine if just heaving will be enough to iron out all the folds from the pile of mass that is lying over me. The air is different though… and abundant. I’m not gasping for it—as I was some time back—hours, days, I don’t remember.
A gust of air. Buzzing sound fills in. Footsteps. Now closer. A tingling on the hand. My finger twitches.
‘Some improvement, but not enough,’ a man’s voice speaks. ‘Keep the same routine. I will come again in the evening. And yes, tell them they can see him now. But not more than thirty minutes.
‘Yes, doctor,’ a lady replies.
Scribbling sound. Gust of air again. Buzzing sound. Footsteps fade.
I’m trying to understand this darkness that surrounds me—attempting to figure out what it holds. It all began with darkness, they say. Wait, what is this? Muffled sobbing?
‘I should not have sent them there! It’s my fault!’
The sobs have become audible now but are still interspersed with attempts to hold them back, and so bubbles of strange, hissing sound are floating around me. Oh I think one of them just burst. Now another! Now they are bursting at will! The woman has started to cry. But why?
‘Sheila, hold yourself together. Remember what the nurse said? We must not make any noise,’ a sober male voice. It has an oddly comforting ring to it, unlike the woman’s that is rife with panic.
‘What noise? He can’t even hear us! He can’t move! He can’t see! How will I ever forgive myself!’
But I can hear you.
‘The doctor said it may take a little time, but he will definitely come out of the coma.
I’m in coma?
‘I don’t believe what the doctor says! I doubt if I believe in God anymore. They had gone to see him, thank him, and this is what they got in return? Trampled by those who call themselves religious and kind? Those animals! But who am I to judge others when I myself am to be blamed. He didn't want to go, didi had told me. He said he would go a week later because he already had plans with his friends. But didi obeyed me blindly. She and bhayiya both! And all three went in what I had smugly proclaimed to be a holy, virtuous week after looking at their kundlis. What use are my predictions if I cannot separate them from catastrophe!’
What bhayiya and didi is she talking about? What catastrophe? Where did they go? Where did we go?
‘Sheila, the stampede has killed several people including…The temple stands painted red. It is rumoured to be a play of political enmity, enacted through the stage of religion. The gunshots that caused the frenzy were fired by political goons. It could have been worse. It’s been two days and there are still heaps of bodies lying in the pandal. The moans suggest not all of them are dead, but they are untraceable because of the corpses that lie above them. We should be thankful that Shantanu has not met a sadder fate. Please stop crying. We must be strong.’
Shantanu? Who is Shantanu? Are they talking about me? Why can’t I…
The crying has stopped. Dragging sound.
‘Here, sit in this chair, Sheila.’
‘He looks miffed with me,’ her voice is terribly grave now. ‘He must have looked like this at didi too, seeing her follow the instructions of a charlatan. Why did Siddhivinayak ji let this happen? All they had gone to do was to pay their respects to the god and ask for his blessings.’
‘Please don’t delve into the past. Is there already less pain!’ his voice is now stern.
But she is not breaking. ‘Maybe they got punishment for my sins. I should have been in their place.’
There has been silence for a while now. Nothing has moved.
'You tell me to be thankful that Shantanu is alive. But should we really be?' the woman finally speaks in a spent manner.
'What do you mean?'
'What if he finds out? He won’t be able to bear the truth. He will hate us for what we are doing.'
'He won't find out….He can't. The doctor said his mind is a clean slate now. We can either tell him what happened with bhayiya and didi and let him slip into trauma he can never be retrieved from as the doctor put it, or we can be his parents who are grateful that their son survived a brutal car crash.’
'Will we be able to give him the same love as bhayiya and didi?'
'We will give him so much love that there will be no void in his life. He will be the son we never had. He will never know.’
But I know.
Gust of air. Buzzing sound. Footsteps.
‘Sir, ma’am, I must ask you to leave. Your thirty minutes are over.’