We reached home early. It was only 11:30 pm, which was early for a typical army party or any party for that matter. Tired, stomach full, and a little tipsy, I drove back home from our officer’s mess to our house, about 1km away. My wife unlocked the door and went in, while I parked the car in the garage downstairs. She went first to the ‘other’ bedroom, switched off the TV that was still on and playing a sentimental song from some new Hindi movie, as a background score to a nonsensical soap opera. These soap operas play such songs for half their running time, while the actors hold their expressions, often that of sadness, shock or despair. Why on earth do people watch this, I wondered. She switched off the light and went to our bedroom.
I was not far away. I entered and, like her, went straight to the other room. While all she saw was the light and blazing TV, all I saw was the motionless figure lying on the bed. I smiled and asked softly “Sleeping? You okay?” It’s curious why we ask people that, when we know that if the person is asleep then it is pointless to ask for he can’t answer and if not, then a “yes” would immediately negate it. And yet, we have this innateness to ask the obvious. I suppose it’s reassuring in some way. The figure stirred, turned few degrees to face me and then flashed a big smile and said “Aa gaye?” (Are you back?) In that one moment I flew back 25 years. The time when they would come back from such parties and she would immediately enter my room to check on me, caress me and make me go back to sleep. Her touch was like magic. The sleep that would come thereafter would be more relaxing than the unconscious state I would be in otherwise. That motionless figure was that of my mother! Our roles have reversed. Now we check on her multiple times during the night, just like parents check on their kids. We put on tv for her and change channels for her. Hold her hands so that she can walk. She needs helps with most basic bodily functions. I don’t mind all this but sometimes, just sometimes, I wish if I would get that warm reassuring caress back. The soft stroke of her hand on my hair. The way she would carefully cover me with a blanket and kiss me goodnight. She would leave one of my feet uncovered as that was my most comfortable sleep form and only she knew that. That will never happen. This is one wish that will stay unfulfilled.
Time, can be cunning.
Sometimes, I would feign sleep on hearing the car approaching. I would quickly switch off the TV and jump on the bed and lie very still. But my faster breathing and the warm TV screen never fooled either of my parents. Still, they played along. My mom would say “Goodnight beta. Sleep well. Don’t watch TV this late” before retiring to her room. How do parents come to know, I often wondered? They didn’t have a camera in my room, or did they? Maybe it’s some sixth sense or some parent’s sense I read about. Can’t possibly know till I assume that role myself. But it was always so reassuring to find them back in the house. Although I was a brave, rather naughty, little one and could easily hold on my own, their presence in the house meant something to me. Perhaps it would have been different if I had a sibling, or maybe not. Another thing that I would never know.
The wasted body on the bed was more than a body and sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes, it was little more than a human machine- empty, emotionless, eroding. But today, she remembers. That smile made me remember too.
Her bright banarasi saris and gold jewelry, high heels, laughing red painted mouth, hair set in the latest trend, a big red bindi and vermilion on her forehead. She enjoyed life. She enjoyed these parties and why not, when there was good food, good company, ample laughter and a time off from the daily rut. For her, it was something to dress up for, something she looked forward to. Now the clothes she wears hung on her. The mouth, unpainted, now only smiles to herself. Her forehead is barren, no Bindi and no vermilion. Her hair cut short, scarce and few, are usually unkempt. My wife keeps gifting her new dresses, but my mother hardly cares, hardly knows the difference. That fashionable woman is hardly now a woman, let alone fashionable. Sometimes, my wife paints her nails and my mother would look at her own hands with a child like glee and a sort of open unabashed wonderment, with slow blinking wide eyes and mouth open agape. Memory, rather loss of it, brings old joys back. I suppose that is the only positive that comes from losing it.
I accompanied them to many parties till I decided I was too old for it all. In most army parties children weren’t allowed, and this particular memory belongs to one such party. I guess we don’t give enough credit to our memory cells. They allow us a peek into those moments in our past that we can no longer visit. I am thankful to my memory. Very thankful.
My mother, the way she was, is captured and safe in these memories. The power to recollect isn’t completely in my hands, but when these memory cells gift me with those memories, it’s precious. No matter if it happens often at odd times. I am not complaining. Whatever little I can get of them is good enough. People don’t realize how lucky they are when they have their parents around. Even if the parents are no longer agile and young. Their presence is more than enough. Their few words can get you going, pull you up and push you to live on. Their complete absence and the feeling of belonging to nobody, gives a sense of being a speck in a vacuum. You can see yourself but you can’t hear yourself, no one else does too. You are alone with your troubles, in your troubles. It cannot be completely described in words. I have only half of the pair and she is half the time unavailable. She has lost herself to an unknown world, a world where none of us exist but her thoughts. But the other half, when she is lucid, is enough- for now.
I lost my parents 8 years back; my father to death and my mother to a long battle of schizophrenia. The day he passed away it was as if a switch was flipped. She just- left. She went into her own world of thoughts. She talked only to her own thoughts. What were we to her -strangers or shadows – I don’t know.
I know I will never get my parents back and I will never see them like that image of happy laughing pair of healthy adults, but I trust my memory to serve me well till it’s time for me to move on.
Today I see them. He, looking dapper in his grey double-breasted suit with a half unfinished drink in his hand, and she, looking beautiful in her red banarasi sari, both laughing. They look happy. They don’t know what will happen in future and I wouldn’t tell them too. If only they had stayed like that moving image, which replayed in my head from time to time. That’s all there is- the moving image of happiness and a wasted body lying on the bed. Both true, both existent, both not permanent. I don’t know what will I tell my future kids when they grow up and ask. Their own mother had never seen either of her in-laws when they were alive and lucid. She has only known this talking human figure with hardly any memory and hardly any life about her.
My wife tells me that schizophrenia is a disorder that is congenital, that it is always there somewhere- like a creepy monster hiding in the basement; but she hasn’t known the mother I have. She hasn’t seen the loving way in which my mumma got up before Sun to make breakfast and pack my school lunch. The mother who bowled endlessly for my batting practice and smiled ever so widely when I scored a six. She hadn’t witnessed the times when me and mumma used to go to my grandparents house for summer vacation and would watch Hindi movies together back-to-back, while the rest of the house took their afternoon nap. She doesn’t know the woman who cooked for the entire house from morning to night untiringly, ever smiling.
She hasn’t seen the long period of rather eventful times when it used to be just me and her, when my father went away for work or was posted to field areas where families weren’t allowed or on an exercise or camp. She hasn’t seen the person who travelled alone with a young kid and bags of luggage in trains from New Delhi to Guwahati,which took two days, to Dimapur by an overnight train journey, and then 6-7 hours by bus till we somehow finally reached Imphal. The destination was Limakong, which took another day’s journey. How tattered and threadbare this seemingly never-ending journey had made us. I still shudder and flinch at the memory and I am myself an army officer, which makes this part of my life. My wife hasn’t shared the moments me and mom did, like the time when we were posted in Babina and how we used to sit half the night, during stormy weather, holding a long rope that kept the TV antenna in place, to prevent it from falling as repairing it would have been too costly and time-consuming. She doesn’t know the woman who cried silently and stealthily, not wanting her 7 year old child to know that his father had gone to Sri Lanka as part of IPKF, while watching news of fresh casualties in Sri Lanka. The woman who would wait for one ISD phone call all day long, all week long. The woman who would walk miles to drop and pick me up from school, took me for all games sessions and birthday parties, bought gifts for kids, and managed her house in an ATM-less world. She hasn’t witnessed any of it. If that’s not normal, I don’t know what is. I don’t know if her schizophrenia was this pertinent since she was little, but I do know that it never kept her away from being a mother, a wife and the person I know.
I capture whatever remains of her in my head, my heart and in my eyes. I hope that together with some old black and white and technicolor photographs that I have from those times, my memories would suffice to tell her grandchildren that she lived. That they lived. I am proud of her and I hope they would be too.