April 2, 2012
In those days, If I remember correctly, Lily-bai’s house got the first telephone connection among the neighbors. Markam, Lily-bai’s husband, had come down from Middle-East and had decided not to return. Instead he opened a small grocery shop in the market. The phone and the TV came along with him in the last trip. For years, theirs was the only house that had a telephone or a color TV. For important events——usually cricket matches——the TV would be staged outside in the veranda on a high table and, a sizable crowd would gather. On weekends, Sunday evenings precisely, after the daily chores, neighbors would gather for the weekly cinema. In those days, before the cable TV, Doordarshan would telecast a single movie in a week.
The telephone served a different purpose though. It became a communication channel to the outside world. Prior to it, the neighborhood was isolated. The phone would ring unexpectedly, sometimes in the wee hours; someone would request to deliver an urgent message, to one of the neighboring houses. On such times, Lily-bai was seen rushing out for the errand. Many of the random calls were for Neelu——her husband had to leave for Middle East shortly after the wedding. Though, Lily-bai disapproved these hour long romantic calls, in her heart of hearts, she liked being the messenger for the lovers. Thus, she had become an important person, who, prior to the phone, was hardly known in the neighborhood.
When strangers called Markam, for some work related to the shop or about the upcoming Panchayat-election, she would answer the call in a telephone operator tone. “May I put you on hold for a moment, if that’s not much of an inconvenience for you?” she would say. She had learned that line from TV, which she used generously with the strangers.
Over the period the calls have reduced. The mobile phones have flooded the market and now, even our milk-man has one.
Lily-bai has fond memories of the past; even now, occasionally when a stranger calls she was heard making polite requests to the callers: “May I put you on hold for a moment, if that’s not much of an inconvenience for you?”
“Where are you?” asked Lily-bai.
“No dinner tonight. I have a party-”
“You had a party yesterday.”
“Yes. Today is a new day.” Said her son, Sunil.
“You said, If I get good scores-”
“Don’t ride the bike in the night; take an auto-”
A young woman’s giggles were heard from the other side.
“Mom…I can’t hear you. Will call you back,” The line got disconnected.
“He’s going out of control,” she told Markam. Who’s going out of control? Markam wondered. But he soon concluded, the only person in the house, who could go out of control——other than Markam himself——would be his son. Markam had just reached home after a long day at the shop.
“This is his final year,” said Markam.
“When did you get your first bike?”
“What?” Over the years, Markam had got used to wife’s out-of-context questions; still, she managed to surprise him occasionally.
“At what age you got your first bike?”
“I never had a bike. You know Father-”
“How many girl-friends you had, before you married me?”
“None. Father showed your picture and commanded to marry-”
“How come your son doesn’t have a single quality from you? Sometimes I wonder if you are the real father.”
“You tell me!” said he, anxiously.
Evening, the couple had a quiet dinner, in the absence of their son. “I will miss him if he gets a job in a distant place,” said Lily-bai.
“We might have to send him to Bombay,” said Markam. “I will have to talk to my sister to shelter him for a while.”
The thought of her son going away made her sullen.
“We should have gone for a second child…” she said.
“We can try now.”
That broke the pensive mood. She got up from the chair, started collecting the dishes; “One of these days, Look yourself in the mirror,” she giggled.
“Do you think I should call him?” she asked her husband, while making the bed.
“Don’t bother him.”
“He’ll be fine. He’s the key.”
Late evening she locked the doors but, let the outside light on. In the amber light, she noticed that the helmet was on the bench, where it was left last evening. She couldn’t sleep. Many a times, she had waited for Sunil on the couch. In those long waits, she had regretted not having more children. The decision to settle for a single child was made long back, when financial conditions were dire. In the early days of marriage, for Markam, it would have been difficult to manage a large family. Things improved only after he went to Gulf. The thoughts trailed off, when she heard the bike outside. After a sigh, she got up from the couch, and before her son could quietly open the door, she opened it for him.
“I know it is late-” he mumbled.
“Wear it,” she thrust the helmet in his hands. She went to sleep, without waiting for an answer.
The next morning, Lily-bai met the traffic police at the market junction.
“What’s the fine for not wearing the helmet?”
“Why do you want to know?”
She was expecting such a reply. She flourished a 100 Rs note. The policeman quickly pocketed it. “200 Rs with receipt; 50 without receipt,” He said.
“I know a college student who goes by this road everyday.”
Then she placed another hundred in his hands.
“For tea and snacks.”
“Make the fine a thousand.” She gave the details of the motorcycle and the rider.
“I know him; he’s a regular,” said the police. “Why so keen on this boy?”
“He’s my son,” she said.
At the dinner they spoke this and that. Lily-bai compared the father and son. Father’s hairline was fast receding, whereas the son could have started plaits anytime. The various colorful bands, on the left hand, suggested alliance to different causes, which Lily-bai didn’t know or didn’t care.
“Things are getting expensive,” Markam said. He was referring to the retailers of his shop.
“Even fines! Do you know the fine for not wearing a helmet?” Sunil asked.
“Did the police stop you?” asked Lily-bai.
Markam sensed fowl business in the air; but chose to ignore it.
A few days later, while they were watching TV after the dinner, telephone rang. Lily-bai signaled Markam to reduce the TV volume.
It was a stranger’s voice. Lily-bai remembered the old days; a mischievous smile came on her face.
“May I put you on hold for a moment, if that’s not much of an inconvenience for you?” From the couch, Markam shook his head, disapprovingly.
“Wait a moment…please…are you an acquaintance?”
“You can say that,” she said coyly.
“I have a message. May be you are the right person to inform the parents. I can’t do that…” The voice sounded hesitant. “There’s been an accident. They took Sunil to the emergency. But he died on the way-”
“Wait…hm…don’t…don’t tell them the boy died right away. Tell them he is serious and, eventually they will be ready for the sad news-”
At first, she thought someone was pulling a prank on her——like the way she was doing. Most of what she heard didn’t make any sense. Her hands started trembling. The eyes blurred. She had to sit in the chair before continuing. “Say that again please…” she said.
Around that time, they received the most number of calls——none were answered by Lily-bai. Markam answered all of them, patiently. He explained again and again, whatever minimum information he knew about the accident, to the many callers——most of whom were unknown to him. The callers were sympathetic, polite, and eager to jump for any help——deep in their hearts though, they let a sigh of relief, for such an incident had not happened to them. When the calls became unbearable, Markam put the receiver off the cradle.
Lily-bai, after receiving the news first hand, developed a fear for the phone. Later days, whenever it rang, a cold shiver would run through her spine. She didn’t touch the phone again.
Many rumors started after the funeral. The victim was eloping with stolen cash. An ex-friend had seen the departed using drugs, a few days ago. The rumors were wild, colorful, attention-grabbing, and untrue.
Markam’s neighbor and friend, Sastri, never called. He didn’t ask any questions. When needed he was available. At the mortuary, Sastri had suggested his friend to wait outside, and alone finished all the formalities. Sastri’s wife cooked food for both the families. Sastri would place the food on the kitchen counter and quietly make an exit.
“You don’t have to do this,” one time Markam told him. But the suggestion was ignored; the food kept coming. Often, the friends sat on the park bench, not talking for long. “He was wearing the helmet and he was not drunk,” said Sastri one day. Markam looked at his friend.
“I thought, you would want to know,” said Sastri.
Lily-bai didn’t sleep for 5 days in a row. The phone was off the cradle. On the 6th day, when she didn’t show any signs of sleep, she was taken to the hospital for sedation.
Markam cut down his outings and, confined himself to the house. The shop was leased temporarily.
Days dragged. One day, when she opened the door, on hearing the bell, a stranger was found.
“This is not the right time.” She slammed the door.
Later when she came out for some chores in the garden, she found the stranger sitting on the outside bench. On seeing her, he stood up, “I need only 30 minutes from you,” he said.
She looked at the tall lean man; he didn’t have the false enthusiasm of a salesman. His eyes were sunk in the sockets, glow less.
“You have waited 2 hours for a 30 minute talk.”
“It is important for me,” the man said.
She pulled a chair. The man sat on the bench.
“Do you know an organization called MADD? M-A-D-D.”
“No.” She said.
“In 1980, Candice Lightner’s 13 year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver, in California. The driver got away with a minimum sentence. Outraged, Candice formed a group of people who had the same misfortune. It is called MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The group fights against drunk driving, and helps victims of this heinous crime.
“The road accidents here are alarming. No where else we have such high numbers. My daughter was waiting for the bus when a truck hit her. She was not even near to the road.
“If we don’t respond now, some more lives will be lost. I don’t have a plan. But if we come together and talk about it something might come up. Some people have already showed interest.”
Lily-bai didn’t interrupt him; she eventually said: “My son won’t come back.”
“True. But you can save someone else’s son. You can save a family from ruins,” said the stranger. “Take a day to think about this. I will call you at ten in the morning.”
He gave her a few leaflets and his card, before leaving.
She got up early, and finished the chores. Though, there was no rush these days——No one waiting for the breakfast or the lunch-box. These things no more mattered. The funds, reserved for education, were liquidated for the day-to-day expenses. She had donated all her son’s clothes. His pictures were locked in a safe in the attic. However, she could not erase the memories, collected over the years, to cherish in the rainy days.
She cleaned last night’s dishes; mopped the floor. At ten, the phone rang, as promised. Her body shivered. Palms started sweating. One time, she had run to take the calls.
She ignored the ring. Are there people like me in the outside world? she wondered; people who quietly suffer injustice and become martyrs, eventually. These thoughts disturbed her. Why no one has come forward so far?
She was never a front runner; she had never started a conversation with a stranger——never addressed a crowd. All those things were left for Markam.
What is at stake? She asked herself and realized at once, she had nothing to lose, now that she had lost everything. In that moment things became clear to her. The phone was still ringing. She picked the phone.
“Hello,” she said.
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