It was six in the evening. I made one more attempt to contact my father who was somewhere in Madhya Pradesh. For the past half an hour his mobile was coming switched off. Now came the same message. He must be in one of those Tafseers or meetings for studies of the Quran. Dejected I closed the file I had been trying to read and walked out of the office. My mother would be impatiently waiting for me in that wretched ward no. 32.
Half a later I was there just in time to hear the Matron of the Ward bellow “Visiting hours is over. All Visitors leave immediately.” As usual, the visitors scrambled to their feet, their eyes moist, peppering their goodbyes with prayers as they took leave of their near and dear ones. Most of the patients in this ward were in a critical stage of some gastro intestinal disease, their dismal condition reflected in their hollow eyes and sunken cheeks. But still, their eyes glimmered with hope- unlike my mother’s, who was suffering from an advanced stage of Cirrhosis of the Liver. She was often admitted for treatment of cirrhotic ascites. But she was also under such acute depression that the hospital authorities had considered my presence necessary and I had been permitted –as a special case– to stay overnight in the ward.
I made my way to her bed. Mother was lying inert staring blankly at the ceiling.
” Hello, Ma,” I said. There was no response. Not even a faint smile. Disheartened I walked towards the window and peered out at the multi-hued sky. The sun had set but darkness had not yet settled in. It was a time between sunset and dusk – the time known as twilight, the semi darkness that envelopes the earth before the night sets in– providing rest to tired minds. But the night in the hospital wouldn’t bring repose to her or to me.
Our lives had gone absolutely haywire in the past one year –ever since she was diagnosed with this fatal illness. She had been the anchor of our lives: mine, my father’s, and Sahir’s, my 12 year old son. Both my brothers were settled abroad and were understandably worried and though they often rang up to enquire and offered financial help, the whole responsibility of looking after her was on me as my father suddenly took to religion and joined the Tablighi Jamat – a religious reform movement whose members went across the country, preaching, trying to reform the way ward, persuading them to emulate the life of the Prophet. He thought that by doing this he would earn some brownie points with God and perhaps the Almighty would cure my mother.
But his constant absence from home, especially when she was to be admitted to the hospital had her down in dumps and aggravated her cirrhotic liver. And I had to manage my job, worry about Sahir spending the night at a friend’s place while helplessly watching her –acutely conscious of her life ebbing away. The doctor’s prognosis was that there was no cure for it– it was only a matter of time. All they could do was to remove the fluid from her stomach which periodically bloated up – and this would continue until the end.
I heard her murmuring. I bent close to her. She was whispering my father’s name …
“What is it Ma?” I asked gently touching her hands.
“He didn’t come today also. Has he not returned?” “No,” I whispered and she sighed– a deeply disappointed sigh.
“He thinks he can benefit you more by his prayers,” I said hoping to ease her despondency. She sighed again and muttered: “He can pray from here also. He knows how much his presence means to me” Tears streamed on the pillow.
“You know dad. He can’t bear to see you in this condition. His recourse to religion may be to avoid watching you go through this tortuous treatment. Perhaps he is unable to come to terms with your illness.”
“But if you care for a person… you should be there with them in their time of need. God will give you courage and emotional strength.” She murmured.
She was right: she had been his emotional anchor, his strength, and support, during the many vicissitudes of fortune and the unbearable devastating tragedy of my sister Aimen’s death in an accident – twenty years ago.
“It’s the patient’s time for the enema.” I heard the nurse and turned to find her standing there with the enema catheter and bedpan. This had become a routine since the disease had badly affected her digestive system. She couldn’t evacuate without it. Normally, I assisted the nurse in giving the enema. Today the nurse on duty was a young girl who was new to the ward, and therefore unaware of my mother’s case history. She looked at her curiously and asked: “How did she get Cirrhosis? She doesn’t look the type to drink.”
I was touched to the quick. How could anyone imagine my mother- a pious and God fearing woman to be a drunkard!
“Alcohol is not the only cause for it. She had hepatitis C which led to it.” I explained in a caustic voice.
The nurse shrugged her shoulders, gave the enema and went away. But her remark continued to rankle me. Why had my mother, who was so devout and God fearing, been afflicted with this terrible disease? Unable to contain my indignation, I asked her; holding her hands firmly,
“Ma. Why did this happen to you? Why did God give you this disease?”
“It is His Will. It is a trial from Him.” She whispered.
I realized the futility of my question when I was all along aware that submission to God’s Will had been the dominant feature of her life .She had never complained, never cursed her fate: she had accepted with an unimaginable calmness and patience the horrendous tragedy of Aimen’s death which had traumatized us.
Aimen’s death and my father’s reaction to it would stay with me forever. I can never forget the Monday evening when returning from school, I saw my mother standing, anguished eyed, near the foyer of our apartment building with a group of somberly ladies. A tremor went through me when she said in a low voice:
” Ayesha, Aimen has had an accident.”
She had said ‘accident’, so as to prepare me for the inevitable – Aiman’s death. She had been dead for four hours and her body was placed on ice slabs in the morgue. Aiman, so beautiful, so brilliant, the apple of my mother’s eyes was no more! And mother was so composed: she was not wailing, wringing her hands, beating her chest as most women would. Somebody whispered that she was in a state of shock and therefore was unable to weep. But Mrs. Aggarwal, our neighbor, disagreed. She had been with her when she went to the hospital and had seen her reaction when she first saw Aimen’s dead body… had seen her uncover Aimen’s face, tenderly lift her head in her hands and whisper:
“God, she was yours, in safe keeping with us. Now she is returned to you.” Everyone gasped, when they heard this – astounded by her faith and courage.
But her courage was still on test. We couldn’t contact father –he was away on tour. Single-handedly she made preparations for the funeral. She kept murmuring as she went about the task:
“It is my last service to my child and nothing should be amiss.”
I was of course of no help: rather a hindrance, hysterically weeping and cursing fate! But my grief paled before my father’s, who returned the day after the funeral. He entered the drawing room filled with teary eyed mourners and seeing some relatives gazing at Aiman’s photographs in the family Album realized she was no more. He went berserk with grief and I, who I had never seen him shed a tear, saw him wail loudly. He had to be injected with a heavy dose of sedatives to prevent him from running amok in the streets.
Aimen’s death devastated us. It left a void in our lives, which could never be filled. Our lives were never the same again though mother’s spiritual strength and patience helped us to live with the loss…
We went through another harrowing period when my marriage–an arranged one – ran into troubled waters. Nisar had been in love with another woman but was forced into this marriage by his ailing parents. His father’s death eased the pressure– he renewed the relationship despite the fact that we had a two-year-old son to consider– and wanted to marry her. And he was clear: if it wasn’t acceptable to me –I could go my way, and take a divorce. But my father was against it –he had wanted me to compromise, he wanted me to accept the other women in his life! He warned me it would be difficult to raise a child as a single mother –I would find it difficult to remarry. But I just could not reconcile to sharing a husband.
Mother had stood by me – she understood my pain. She didn’t believe in passively accepting the conditions of the patriarchal system and didn’t want me to be stuck in a loveless marriage for social approbation and Sahir to grow up with divided loyalties and the embarrassment of having a bigamous father.
Most importantly at that juncture, she helped me to become financially independent. Highly educated herself –she was the first girl in her family to acquire a post graduation degree and take up a job as a lecturer and rise to the post of a Principal, from which she retired some months before she was diagnosed with this dreadful disease.
But what surprised me was that a woman as strong as her, who had backed me, supported me in learning to live on my own terms, so desperately missed her husband – felt so abandoned and helpless.
“Tomorrow morning we’ll remove the fluid. Since her sodium levels are low we will have to put her on a drip.” The senior doctor informed after examining her.
I nodded, bracing myself for the painful removal process.
After dinner I spread a sheet on the ground beside the bed and lay down, intermittently getting up to check on her .She pretended to be asleep but the pinched expression and pursed lips indicated she was still disturbed by father’s behavior – after years of togetherness and close bonding (that elicited admiration of friends and relatives) she didn’t expect to be forsaken like this! I tried to comfort myself with images of happier times, captured in the family album and the minds eye.. What a handsome couple they made? They both looked like movie stars! She fashionable and pretty; with her moon face, doe eyes, curly hair. One of my friends said she looked like Nimmi – a star of the yester years. I had repeated it to her, thinking she would be flattered. But she wasn’t. She had replied with mock disdain: “I look like myself.” Now that vivacious, gutsy and charming woman was just a shadow of her former self.
The next day, nearly ten bottles of fluids were extracted: each bottle containing a litter and half! Her bloated stomach became flat and the swelling in her feet subsided.
“Have you contacted your father?” She whispered as the evening drew near.
“I’ll ring him up late in the night. He must be in the prayer meeting now.”
She turned away despondently. I mulled asking the doctor for discharge. At home, in the familiar surroundings, with Sahir near her – she was more at peace. But then she looked so exhausted, that I wasn’t confident if I could manage to take her home by myself. But I dreaded spending another night in the ward. So I made up my mind to request for a discharge. I got up and walked towards the doctor’s room and was astonished to see my father walking in.
“When did you return?” I asked as he hugged me.
“A few hours ago. “He replied and turning to the doctor on duty requested him to discharge the patient. The doctor contacted his senior who came and explained by mother’s condition. He listened gravely when they informed that there was no cure for it and her condition was deteriorating day by day.
“If there is no cure for her illness, and if fluid removal is the only way out, the same arrangements can be made at home”
“Yes, Sir. But it is expensive and there is a chance of an emergency occurring …”
“I’ll take the chance. I know she would want to be home. Kindly make the discharge papers.”
While the discharge papers were being prepared, I accompanied him to the ward. As we walked towards my mother’s bed, I was aware of the impact father’s presence had on the hospital staff. They had not seen him earlier and were overawed by his personality. Though nearing seventy he was still very personable. His health and well-maintained physique, the envy of many of his peers, were a result of my mother’s efforts and care and also of his disciplined lifestyle. My mother used to bask in the compliments – she felt it was hers by right. Today his presence meant more to her than his good looks – it would reaffirm her faith in his love. With mounting excitement, I went to her as she lay on her side, with her back to us:
“Ma, see who is here.”
She turned around and the glazed expression vanished: her eyes lit up.
“Afzal! You have come!.” She cried with joy.
“Yes. I have come to take you home and take care of you.”
An hour later we were in the taxi, on our way home. My mother’s face was calm; her eyes serene, her head lay gently on my father’s arm. No matter how independent and strong she appeared – she was emotionally dependent on my father as he had been on her. They were a blessed couple. But I wondered how and why he had suddenly decided to come back – to leave his missionary work.After we reached home, and mother was made comfortable in her bed, he narrated the epiphany he had experienced the evening before. As he sat in a large gathering assembled in a Mosque in Bhopal listening with rapt attention to the learned preacher from Saudi Arabia, on ways of attaining Salvation, his attention was distracted by the sight of a poorly dressed, u scrawny, middle aged man in front of him who was being prevented from leaving the sermon. He heard the man plead that he had to go as his son had sent in a chit informing of his wife‘s accident.
“God will look after her.” He was curtly told by the devout Khidmatgaar.
“That’s true but it is my duty to take care of her.” And he heard that shabby decrepit man quote one of Prophet’s sayings:
“The best of you are those who are best to their wives.” And then he saw him walk away from the huge gathering. In an instant it flashed in my father’s mind: the semi educated unkempt man had found his Path to Salvation while he was still searching it in the sermons of the Mullah. Service to humanity was the highest creed and he had abandoned the women who had been with him through thick and thin. The next minute he got up and walked out of the Mosque ignoring the glowering eyes of the speaker and of the learned Ulema assembled on the stage. He took the first flight and returned to Mumbai to be with his wife when she needed him most.
Overwhelmed at what I construed as divine intervention, I walked over to the window. The sun had just dipped in the sea. It was twilight –the time between dusk and night. I looked at my mother’s tranquil face and knew she was ready to face the night – whatever it may portend.