She looked at his forlorn and wizened form curled up in disturbed slumber as the first rays of the sun streamed into the windows. As she moved towards the window to draw the curtains, the strong stench of faeces overwhelmed her. He had soiled his bed again last night. Nothing could be done till he woke up. She did not want to disturb him. His strong medication begged longer hours of rest even as the disease denied him sleep at night. She knew that he lay hours awake trying to piece together the fragments of the puzzle his life had become. Who was the woman beside him? Who was he? Where was he? As Alzheimer tightened its grip upon him, the puzzle became even more disjointed and his struggle harder. She would often wake in the night and soothe him, ‘Shh…don’t try so hard…it will come back.’
However it did not seem as if it would. The cracks in the mirror were multiplying and getting deeper and the images even more distorted. A few weeks back, he had lost his way and had stood shaking and distraught at the corner of Curzon Park till a neighbour had brought him home He was scared to even move out of the apartment now. He had now begun losing control over his bodily functions. Incontinence during sleep now occurred once or twice a month.
She sighed as she shuffled out to the dining hall towards the small dining table where a steaming cup of tea beckoned her. She took a sip, savoured the taste and opened the newspaper. The Times of India, 14th February 2015. The first one and a half pages and two pull-outs in the middle were devoted to offers on Valentine’s Day. Diamonds, jewellery, mobile phones, fashion clothes and accessories, even KFC chicken buckets were all screaming discounts to celebrate the day. Disturbed, she tried to look at the headlines. ‘A right wing group breaks up a rave Valentine’s party at 2am in Lonavla. Women heckled, 4 injured..’ Angry, she folded the paper and tossed it on the chair.
It was all so crude, loud and vulgar now. E-commerce and profits, sound-bites and eyeballs, sex and sensationalism. She remembered her college days of timid footsteps and coy glances exchanged across the classroom, a rose being passed across whispers in the class, pressed within the pages of a notebook. The furtive meetings at the bus stop, holding hands only to be snatched away scared that ‘someone would see.’
College-that’s where it all began. Who would have imagined that the tall strapping Sushant who had set the hearts of a thousand girls a flutter would be decimated to the form on the bed in the next room?
Prerna smiled as she reminisced memories of Valentine’s Day a semi centennial ago. Memories, her husband’s bitter enemy, are what kept her going now. Valentine’s Day, where a rose or a smile was gift enough. Except that the roses were reserved for Sushant’s many girlfriends and the smile, an awkward one at that, for her. Prerna was simply too geeky for most boys in her class- a topper, an indefatigable debater and a quizzing champ who would put Britannica Encyclopaedia to shame. Most boys felt intimidated and slighted in her presence. Except of course Sushant, who felt that his good looks, conquests in the sports field and of women’s hearts set him a notch higher. Yet he could not gauge her. What Sushant did not know was every time he smiled awkwardly at her, Prerna was a spent force. Behind all the veneer of strength and accomplishments was a girl hopelessly in love. She would break out in cold sweat scared that he would hear her thudding heart and the façade of a brave front would crumble.
It was the final year of college. Sushant had now being going steady for close to a year with Natasha and everyone believed that they would settle down. Sushant had become less flamboyant, reserved and dedicated to Natasha and his peccadillos were a thing of the past. They made a beautiful couple. Prerna had buried her feelings for Sushant long back and had immersed herself in academics with a vengeance. She was determined to excel and pursue her Masters abroad and was well on course. End of college was nine months away.
She remembered that night, just as she had completed her revision for her GRE exams the next day when the phone in her drawing room had begun to ring. Disha, her close friend was breathless, ‘An accident…Sushant and Natasha on a bike…lorry…Fortis Hospital…’ Prerna barely had time to explain to her parents who had woken up, before she rushed out.
Most batch mates had reached the hospital when Prerna arrived. Ravi, their College General Secretary was speaking to the cops quietly in one corner. Sushant’s parents were sitting immobile in a corner and Natasha’s mother was sobbing uncontrollably.
They could not save Natasha that night. Sushant had become crippled with multiple injuries to his spine and head, though the doctors were optimistic about his recovery. What perhaps could not be salvaged they felt was his spirit.
Friends rallied round Sushant to rehabilitate him. Doctors attended to him day and night. The physical wounds healed in two months and Prerna was selected by friends as the natural choice to get Sushant ready in time for the final semester. It was an uphill task. The memories of the painful separation from Natasha had completely broken him. Prerna took it upon herself to heal his soul, aware that without zeal to live, completing college would be of little use. Yet whatever she said had little impact on him. He seemed to move around like an automaton, his mind wandering when they sat down with the books. It was nearing the end of November, four month after the accident and they were getting nowhere. Worse, Prerna found that she was falling back in her own preparations and this was frustrating her even more.
One day she flung the books aside and screamed, ‘You are not the only poor soul in this world! Stop thinking about yourself! Think of your parents and what they are doing for you. You owe it to them! You have a life ahead, Take control!’
Sushant had kept quiet, not saying a word.
The next day when she went to his place, his father met her and apologetically said, ‘Beti, Sushant has decided to drop a year at college. He left this morning for Rishikesh and said that he wanted some time by himself. Concentrate on your own future beti; we are so sorry that he failed you and all of us like this.’
Prerna was furious. ‘Loser!’ she thought to herself. She came back, cursing herself for having invested so much of effort and time on him and threw herself at her books with a vengeance.
One day, the front door bell rang. Standing at the door was a radiant Sushant she knew of yore, smiling as he held out a bouquet of a dozen red roses for her.
Prerna did not know whether she was angry or happy to see him. Stiffly she allowed him to come in and sit down.
Still holding the bouquet Sushant said, ‘Prerna, I am sorry. I realised that I was not helping myself and pulling you down as well. Hence I left and spent the last two months in an ashram discovering myself and what I want to do. I will repeat my final year and complete college. I will take a decision thereafter.’
Seeing his serious face Prerna thawed somewhat. ‘And what are the roses for?’ she asked.
Sushant smiled, ‘They are to say that I am sorry. And today is incidentally the 14th of February.’
‘I will accept it for the apologies but not for the occasion. And you look good. Soon you will have a hundred girls swoon over you when you get back to college and then you will be running out of roses as you used to!’ She said. They both laughed.
Sushant made no further contacts with Prerna. It was the sweltering month of May now. Prerna had topped college and was busy with her MS applications. She was seeking late admissions for the spring season, hoping that she could still get acceptance in a few US colleges. Sushant came over and helped her with the paperwork. Working late one night in December, Sushant reached out to his duffel back and took out a bouquet of red roses and told Prerna, ‘I know this may sound cheesy but I think that I am falling for you.’ Prerna shot him a hard look and said, ‘What’s this Sushant? Gratitude? Compromise? Please do not spoil a perfectly good friendship.’ The bouquet lay between them like the Rubicon which Sushant didn’t dare to cross. She saw little of Sushant after that.
Early February next year. Prerna stood huddled with her family at the airport hugging good-byes. She suddenly saw Sushant standing away holding a bouquet of red roses. She broke away and went to him and said, ‘You are a week early for Valentine.’ They laughed and hugged one another awkwardly. In the flight Prerna had counted twelve roses as she read the small note attached, ‘Will you be my Valentine?’
Over the next five years when Prerna completed her MS first and then her PhD, the twelve red roses never failed to reach her each Valentine, with the only note attached, ‘Will you be my Valentine?’ Prerna was surprised at his persistence. She was certain at first that it was gratitude, then an extension of friendship, but now couldn’t fathom it any more. They kept in touch over emails in casual conversation and gossip and he never brought up the topic. Neither did she.
When she returned to India and found Sushant at the airport, holding the customary bouquet for her she had finally relented with a ‘Yes.’
They had married and settled down, Sushant providing the anchor for the relationship. Prerna had a high profile job, while Sushant worked in a small private company. He had quit thrice, twice on account of her moving cities for a new job/transfer and once to bring up their only son Premangshu, now settled in the US. In all their first twenty five years of marriage, Sushant never forgot the dozen red roses on every Valentine, though Prerna often joked that he would often forget their marriage anniversary.
Sushan’t medical condition’s first inklings came from bouts of forgetfulness which they both passed off due to old age and then with fits of short term memory loss. What hadn’t helped was Sushant’s hiding from her at first and then denial. She had finally coaxed him to visit the doctor, who had confirmed the worst and mentioned that the cause could be on account of the head injury in the accident many years ago. The red roses of course had stopped coming as Sushant struggled with his failing memory for the smallest of things.
Prerna sighed as the montage of her life flashed past her eyes and she realised that the tea was over. She realised that Sushant was deteriorating rapidly and only hoped that he would pass on soon to the afterlife without any more suffering.
She got up for a refill and went to bedroom. The bed was empty. The soiled sheets and his night clothes had been removed and put in a bucket in the toilet.
‘Suhant…Sushant,’ she called. There was silence in the house. She moved around the apartment and the balcony and realised that he was not at home. He must have quietly gone out when she was engrossed in her thoughts. He often did that now as she was worried to let him go alone. Prerna cursed herself silently as she sat down wondering what to do no next.
The front doorbell rang and she rushed to open it. Sushant stood there awkwardly with a stoop, his silver hair combed neatly, wearing his best suit. With trembling hands he held out a bouquet of a dozen red roses. Prerna hugged him and wept.