The rows of dark green hills are stretched on the horizon forming a series of pyramids trying to reach the sky. Among the cluster of houses on a large plateau on the side of a mountain slope, ours is the most beautiful one with hibiscus and the inevitable bougainvillea lining the hedges. It is late morning and in the distance I can see the sunlight filtering through the green foliage creating dark shadows in the valleys.
I tiptoe out from our backyard, trying not to attract the attention of mother, who would have detained me at least half an hour with her morning dose of dos and don’ts for girls of my age. The makeshift gate of bamboo sticks, treacherous as always, makes horrible creaking noises. But I escape unnoticed and run downhill through the narrow winding path. Mother is undoubtedly busy with the dos and don’ts for my father, who with a mischievous tolerant smile bears it all and unlike me refuses to go into any argument whatsoever.
I hop over the boulders on the little stream, which is a friendly little river except during the rains. Still not accustomed to my routine the frogs jump in the water scared out of their wits and I look up to the sky to see a horde of parrots flying across screeching mad. My destination is the small gorge behind the thorny bushes, where the stream takes a U-turn and run faster with my ponytails floating in the air. I don’t like my unruly hair and my freckles and when any of my friends comments on my appearance I get very angry.
Whenever I am upset I run to my father, who takes me up in his arms and assures me that I am the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. Then, looking grave and serious, he secretly confides that he would have definitely married me instead of my mother if only I was born three decades earlier. Mother with her uncanny ability to hear wrong things at the right times, expresses a mock anger and declares that father would perish in hell uttering such things to his own daughter. They are an adorable pair – my mother and father. They assume that I am too young to read their silent meaningful exchanges.
“Deepa” somebody hails, “we are here”. I wake up from my reverie and run towards the pine tree, our meeting place. Summer holidays have begun in our schools.
The green hills are calling me.
* * * *
Every life is an epic if you look closely enough.
When Deepa married Deepesh everything was bliss. Deepesh, a distant relative, came to the hills to spend a vacation and Deepa was unaware that both their families were hoping they would tie the knot.
Smart and attractive, Deepesh, short named Deep, was a junior officer in the Welfare Department. First time in the hills, Deep had no problem driving in such a terrain and with Deepa as guide spent some wonderful time sightseeing. Deep and Deepa everybody said were made for each other.
Marriage took Deepa away from the hills. They settled down in the far away city where Deep worked. With her brilliant academic records, Deepa had no problem getting a job as a teacher in the primary section of a renowned school.
Deepa was never at ease in the busy streets with overflowing traffic and multistoried buildings almost embracing one another. There were hardly any trees and the tiny veranda was the only spot in their flat from which a small patch of sky was visible. In any case, the veranda with a weird mesh of clothesline, the only place to dry washed clothes, was almost impenetrable. Every open window gave a clear view of the next-door neighbour’s discreet affairs. She was getting used to the smells emitting from exotic dishes, and sometimes not so exotic ones, but was constantly irritated by the domestic quarrels that inevitably took place in one or the other flat, particularly when abusive vocabulary was used.
Nevertheless Deepa was happy; happy at home and happy with her work. She loved working with kids. She also liked the weekly shopping with Deep. Deep had a lot of friends and one or the other would inevitably drop by in the evening and the hours stretched long with endless cups of tea and lots of gossip with abundant laughter.
Barely one year had passed when two things happened. Deepa had a miscarriage, and there was this car accident.
A fast driver, Deep rammed on to a speeding truck. He was thrown out of his car. When he came to, Deep found no external injuries on his person. Relieved he got up and took a few steps towards his mangled car. These were the last steps he took in his life. He felt a sudden weakness in his legs and fell down. He was destined never to walk again.
* * * *
We are all in a festive mood. Tomorrow is Swaraswati Puja and with indulgence from our parents our group of fifteen odd boys and girls are organizing a community celebration. We have spent the whole day decorating the mandap. Today I am permitted to stay outdoors till late night.
When it is quite dark we silently creep into the compound of the manager’s large bunglow and pluck the dahlias and roses, with which we will decorate the idol. Swapanda is our leader in all our surreptitious activities. Permanently in need of haircut, Swapanda never bothers about his dress or appearance. He has taught us to climb trees, catch fish, light fires in the jungle. We consider Swapanda a teacher who has taught us to read the forest.
* * * *
After the initial shock, Deepa was relieved when the doctors said that they would operate on Deep’s spine. She was silently expecting a recovery after surgery. But it was not to be. Deep’s paralysis was permanent. He became what Deepa came to know of as a SCI paraplegic.
In the rehabilitation centre where Deep was lodged, Deepa learnt a lot about spinal cord injury and paraplegia.
Deep was in a state of shock when he realized that he was permanently disabled. He went into a fit of depression and Deepa felt that he was contemplating suicide. Doctors, therapists, psychologists had long sessions with him. There were group therapies with other paraplegics. Deepa stayed in the centre with Deep and was asked to cheer him up. Doctors talked about a new life and independence on a wheelchair. It was all very confusing. Herself thoroughly depressed she somewhat coped with her inner stress and tried to put up up a smiling front.
Slowly Deep accepted the truth. They stayed in the centre for four months and then shifted to a new ground floor flat, which was renovated to make it accessible for Deep in his wheelchair.
Deep had no control of his bladder and the urine was collected via a condom to a bag tied to one of his legs. Deepa resigned from her job and spent the time looking after Deep and making adjustments at home. Modifications were also done in Deep’s office to make it accessible to him.
Deepa’s days of silent mourning started.
* * * *
Most of my friend’s houses are clustered around an orchard with plenty of trees. It is summer and whenever there is a storm, all of us rush out to pick up fallen mangoes. There is a fierce competition, with Swapanda always bagging the biggest pick. Late night yesterday I woke up to hear a fierce thunderstorm. I made it a point to wake up early and I did. At the first light of dawn, I stole from my bed and rushed out. And what a surprise! There was a large mango lying below a tree – a very large one indeed. Overjoyed I rushed back home with my treasure and later called all my friends to come and see. I should have noticed the silent exchanges of my treacherous parents. In front of all my friends they burst out laughing and Swapanda joined in. The mango they declared was not of a local variety. Swapanda, it was revealed amid peals of laughter, had bought the mango from the market and kept it lying beneath the tree to lure me. I feel fooled and humiliated. I will never talk to Swapanda again.
* * * *
The changes in Deep were subtle. But looking back over the years those were remarkable.
The handicap, paradoxically, gave Deep a boost to his career. During his stay in the rehabilitation centre he was introduced to some national and international paraplegic societies. He attended some short courses abroad. As he was already in the Welfare Department, his ascendancy in his carrier was notable within a short span.
In a few years Deep became the Director of his department, a highflying executive. He was no longer Deep or Deepesh. He was addressed as Mr. Chatterjee by all and sundry.
Talkative and jovial he remained as before, but he was given to sudden changes in mood. At intervals he would become sullen and brooding for no apparent reason and shout at others. Was it because of the high office he held or was it because of his handicaps?
When Deepa reacted in her usual fashion to some of these childish outbursts, Deep would become furious and not utter a single word for days. Deepa felt helpless and guilty, as during these episodes, Deep did not even express his needs and ask for her help in his daily chores. Deepa started planning, very uncharacteristic of her, as to how to deal with the situation and initiated discussions with Deep when he was in one of his better moods. It was of no avail.
As a Director he was pampered and patted. There were sycophants plenty in the office who always hovered around him. It was rumoured that he was more a showpiece than a functioning Director. He was favoured both by the government and the media. He developed appropriate connections and would rush to Delhi on one pretext or another, to woo his higher-ups in the ministry.
Contrary to all that had been taught in the rehabilitation centre, Deep liked to be pushed in his wheelchair and there was always someone ready to wheel him him around. In fact he kept note of his junior officers who never bothered to do this. They were not in his good books.
At home his activities were very similar. Deepa, laughing, fighting, flying Deepa finally gave up arguing altogether and became a silent, tolerant and all forgiving woman. She wheeled him and willed herself to listen to his boastful monologues. She was there to fulfill his every need. Deepa recollected the sessions they had in the rehabilitation centre. The doctors had insisted that Deep become independent in every respect – in his mobility and in all his activities at home and workplace. Mr.Chatterjee had become just the opposite.
Doctors had talked a lot about sexual rehabilitation – about sexuality, about exploring newer avenues of sexual fulfillment. But it was rare for Deep even to hug Deepa. It was not that Deep was not given to amorous fantasies. Deepa had discreetly noticed that when she was in the kitchen in the evenings, Deep, with the remote in his hand, would constantly surf the T.V. channels and goggle at provocative dances or switch on to Fashion T.V. Never in front of Deepa though. The memories of their first year of married life became a distant recollection like her childhood games of hide and seek. Her eyes would only become misty when she saw toddlers pestering their mothers.
* * * *
It is a moonlit night. Today is the first time father has slapped me and scolded me severely. It was not a big issue. I just wanted to stay overnight at a friend’s place. I was arguing fiercely with my mother when father, who had been attending to a patient, came in. He did not want me to shout at my mother, he said.
It was late afternoon when I ran out with tears streaming down my face. I went down near the stream and sat below my favourite pine tree.
Maybe I had gone to sleep with my own miseries. I woke up to see it was already dark and the only sound was the constant buzzing of the crickets. The moon was coming up just over the hills, throwing streaks of light over the dark landscape.
I am scared. Nobody loves me. I want to go away far from home, never to return. If I can go to the top of the hills, can I touch the moon?
I want to go home. No I won’t. I am shaking with fright at every unusual sound. Suddenly I hear shouts. They are looking for me. My bitterness swells up. I do not respond to their frantic calls. Like in a dream I see my father in front of me, gathering me up in his arms. How can he do that? I am a big girl now. But he manages and carries me up all the way home while I keep sobbing on his loving shoulder.
The only thing father says, “please, don’t make me cry ever again”.
* * * *
Deepa was proud of her husband. After all he was so famous. Every now and then he would appear in a T.V. programme. He had become obese and diabetic. He did not do any exercise that the doctors had strongly emphasized. Possibly because of that and possibly because of his extravagant dietary habits his face had become large and puffy. Of major concern however were his repeated urinary tract infections.
Deep liked to attend every function and social gathering that he was invited to, provided the venue was accessible with a wheelchair. Initially on a few occasions Deepa attended these gatherings along with Deep. She was introduced as Mrs. Chatterjee and people gathered around her in a reverent attitude. Nobody asked her name or what she did – she was Mrs. Chatterjee, not Deepa. While she reveled in her husband’s fame, deep inside she resented her oblivion.
Every woman’s struggle throughout her life was to establish an identity for herself, she had read somewhere. What was her identity?
Finally she stopped attending these functions altogether. Nobody noticed, she was sure, least of all her husband. There always was somebody else to propel his wheelchair.
Deepa started craving for the hills.
And then what was her destination? In her life’s journey from childhood she had never reflected on the path she was traveling on. But now she finds herself in a road she never intended to cross but had no way of going back.
After the accident Deepa had never been to the hills, except once when her mother died. Deep could not be left alone. Neither had he shown any inclination to visit his in-law’s place. After all it was a difficult journey for a person with such a disability. After her mother’s death Deepa’s father rarely left the hills. He did not like the cities he said. He had retired, but often attended to patients in the surrounding villages.
* * * *
Mama brate te hridayang dadhatu mama chittamanu chittang tehastu! …. Brihaspatista nijunaktu majhyam—
Endow your heart in my missions,
Let your mind subscribe mine….
God Brihaspati may entrust you for me—
Like all brides, I had accepted my husband’s declarations during the rites.
* * * *
When Deep died of renal failure at the age of fifty-eight, Deepa had already withered as if an old lady. Of late her hairs had turned gray and she suffered from excruciating pain in her knees whenever she climbed stairs.
So many people attended the final rites of Mr. Deepesh Chatterjee including ministers and journalists. People talked of his struggles and achievements.
The rites over, the people drifted away and Deepa sat down with her face buried in her father’s lap and wept.
Days passed. Deepa was confused. Was she mourning her husband’s death? She moved around the spacious accessible flat with nothing to do. She was in a complete void. Days passed into weeks. People dropped by – to sympathize. Deepa responded, but her heart was not there.
* * * *
I am going back – to my father, to my hills. I will run down the stream again and sit below my own pine tree. Is Swapanda still in need of a haircut? Why didn’t I call him Swapan, when I so much wanted to!
Why do I feel so much elated?
I am going home to my hills. Mom