Routes of Escape

One November afternoon some years back, our daughter, Priyamvada, convinced us to stop over at a pet store in Santa Monica just to look at the pets, not get any. We didn’t know then we would leave the store with Tara in a cardboard box with us.

We browsed through the store, looking at the puppies and the kittens and at their vast collection of exotic fish. Then, Ram, my husband, stopped in front of a big cage.

“What do we have here?” He looked inside curiously.

“These are Russian dwarf hamsters. They make great pets.” We were informed.

“Yes, but what’s the matter with them?” Ram asked and all of us huddled to look.

The cage looked quite empty, save for one tiny hamster, a fur-ball no bigger than an inch. The igloo at the center was stuffed with more furry creatures and in its only entrance – a circular hole a couple inches in diameter - were crammed five or six hamster butts.

Hamsters being nocturnal animals, these little critters were sleeping, it turned out.

“Looks a little inconvenient in there,” Ram muttered.

We turned our attention towards the hamster that had not joined his buddies ‘in bed’. He had been running the wheel. Seeing us, he had stopped and now, he was looking back at us. It seemed weird that he could see that far. He seemed smart and curious and not shy at all. I don’t know what came over us. We made a unanimous decision to bring him home.

In one quick look the store-owner ascertained our hamster was actually a ‘she’. In the car, we christened her Tara and at home Alice’s three-storied cage awaited her. Alice, a gerbil, much bigger than Tara, was our son, Bheemsen’s pet many years back.

Tara’s investigations began as soon as she was placed in the freshly-prepared cage. She understood each nook, every corner in no time. She sniffed every article present, sifted through the little box of grains, bit every piece of wood that was left to be bitten, sipped at the water-bottle and finally settled on the wheel. Just the hamster cereal bar she left untouched.

We spent the evening around the cage, watching her. And at night as we waited for sleep to come, a smile was pasted on each face thinking about this wonderful addition in our family.

Ram is the first to wake up in the morning. He put the coffee on and went to the toilet. As, sleepily, he sat on the seat he got his first “good-morning” of the day. Tara was nibbling at the little toe of his left foot.

“What are you doing here? So early in the morning! Out of your cage!”

Peering behind the toilet bowl he found Tara’s stash. The granola-bar she had feigned disinterest in was broken in little pieces piled in a neat mound. Tara had spent the entire night relocating to her new address.

Saying, “You can’t live here, you silly rodent!” Ram put her back in the cage.

While we ate breakfast, Tara sulked and stayed inside the igloo. She came out only when the children left for school, rebellious. Although the grills of the cage were closely spaced, the bars on the corners were wider. She squeezed out from one corner and scampered towards the toilet at the opposite end of the house as Ram followed her. I must get a new cage for this parcel of trouble, I was thinking as carefully I tightened the sides with wires.

Inside the cage again, at first Tara made a search for a gap wide enough to squeeze through. Her tantrums began when she found all routes of escape blocked.

She was frantic and started to climb up the grating of the cage. She banged her head in frustration. She climbed to the third floor to come at eye-level with us and banged her head some more. She pushed the wooden biting chunk that was nearby in anger. She clutched the grid of the cage and shook it hard. A creature so small, causing such ruckus! We could not believe our eyes. I was worried all that emotion would make her sick, so I covered the cage with one of Bheemsen’s shirts lying nearby.

***

A few years later, when I was 46 and my children had left for college I started to feel the restlessness that Tara had displayed that day. I left Ram. Dumping my practice in psychiatry, I set out for Bhopal to find Zulfi, the lost love of my youth.

***

Zulfiqar had come out of nowhere in the last year of our high school. A humanities student, in a matter of just a few weeks he had become so popular, even our teachers had fallen in his sway. Knowing well that I had been honing my skills to lead the school all those past years, they decided, nonetheless, to place the mantle of head-boy on the boy they barely knew.

With simple words of consolation, “You have all those entrance exams to think about,” muttered to me by our maths teacher, I was pushed aside.

That Zulfiqar was never seen walking alone, by himself. Always, a coterie of sidekicks surrounded him. I hated him, could never be caught looking his way when we crossed paths; which is not to say that I was surprised to find the kid had fallen for me! I mean, who didn’t?

Every day at recess, when I and my best friend, Ratna, walked out in the winter sun, holding hands, gossiping, humming our favorite songs, doing all those things that best friends like to do, I would notice Zulfi watching me from inside the classroom. He would appear to be in a swoon, for he leaned on his group of friends as he looked our way.

“What a loser! Take a good look at your leader, Ratna.” Ratna would remain quiet. A nice girl, who never had a harsh word for anyone, that’s how my Ratna was.

I heard from Ratna again only in my second year of medical school. “We are planning to elope. You have to help me think, Viji,” was how she began.

“Elope?” I was flabbergasted. Even the word felt strange to utter. “With whom?”

My Ratna was an introvert. In fact, this was the first time I had heard her bring up her personal feelings. But, escaping from a problem was not in my style and for the first time I wondered if I had even understood Ratna.

“I love him, Viji. We love each other but - he is a Muslim and you know my parents. They will never hear of it. I am so unhappy. I count on you for all the support.”

My question was still unanswered. I looked at her puzzled, wondering if maybe I knew this guy she planned to elope with. Did I know any Muslim boy? I realized, in my entire life I had never known any Muslim people, except -.

A shocking thought rose in my mind and before I could even formulate it she said, “Viji, we have been close like only sisters can be. I am so proud of you; proud of being your friend. I have always admired your self-confidence. I couldn’t bear to see that break. So many times I thought of telling you in school -”

“Is it Zulfiqar?” I interrupted her.

She did not reply, instead teardrops started to roll down her cheeks. So it was him.

Gulping down pride, I said, “You’re being silly.”

And then, added, “You will be stupid to do any such thing. Besides, does he even have any plans for his life? What’s he doing, anyway? You listen to me, Ratna! Nothing will become of him. He’ll only pull you down with him. You are only 18. Finish your college, at least.”

“But…”

I had to interrupt her again. My professionals, major examinations, were coming up and I had little patience with this kind of talk. “Just don’t do it, my chick.”

That’s how we parted.

In my final year of medical school, she wrote to me.

“We were both cruel to each other the last time we met. But true friends never stop loving each other. Besides, I have a piece of news that is sure to cheer you up. We have a baby girl, my dearest, and both, Zulfi and I plan to name her after you. Vijaylakshmi…” I was not cheered. Instead I felt my heart sink.

There was more in that letter. They lived in Bhopal where Zulfi had found work in a garage. He worked long hours, their life was hard, they were always short on things – short of food, short of cash; there had even been some mishaps, one serious accident, but thankfully all that “is behind us now.” She wrote that she knew that the child would make life tougher but at least they had each other and that was what mattered to her. I crushed the letter into a tight ball and tossed it away.

Could I commend her for escaping into a life of uncertainty? But more than that, the very idea that some sort of deep love kept Zulfi close to my poor Ratna, I found preposterous. To me, it was clear that in hopes of remaining in touch with me, Zulfi had clung on to her after we had all left school, little knowing that in the process he would get entangled in this relationship.  Such things do happen. I am a shrink. I know.

***

They would have me believe that Zulfi is no more. That he died long time back, moreover, in my arms. That I could forget these facts was most amazing to them.

My mother was the harshest.

“What kind of a woman are you? Leaving your husband, such a good man; the very personification of our Lord Ram!” She cried in anger.

Mother could happily ignore that inside my chest was embedded a throbbing, yearning box; that another man’s shadow had for so many years loomed over me and only now I had noticed that.

“And just because your children are in college does not mean they won’t need you.” She was unendurable. “We gave you such fine education, for what - to see this behavior? And at your age, what are you - approaching 50 - to behave like a silly, immature butterfly. O God, why didn’t this one die the day she was born to me?”

Now it is true that my mother is prone to hyperbole. But she had this tone since the time I arrived from California at her house, my old home, and kept it throughout. It was agonizing and I could not stand it anymore.

So I turned to Anupam, my friend from the days of medical school, now a nephrologist in Bhopal. Anupam was born and raised in Bhopal and after his 5 years in the med-school in Delhi had returned back and till this day had not left his place of birth.

“Welcome back, Survivor!” Anupam greeted me with a smile.

We were both survivors. Back in 1984, we were medical residents in the same hospital in Bhopal. A new dimension was added to our friendship that year when together we survived and helped hundreds survive the infamous poison gas disaster of Bhopal. But that was a crazy time, a period securely blocked out from my mindscape.

Why, being a girl from Delhi, I had chosen Bhopal for my residency? It was an unusual move. I must admit, I was not thinking like my normal self then. These feet of mine had brought me from Delhi to the place where Zulfi lived a hard existence with a wife and an infant girl supposedly named after me, eking out a living fixing cars. I knew not then my plan of action. Only my desires ruled.

When I met Anupam after so many years, I felt I was meeting a stranger. With gray thinning hair and thick glasses and the smooth lines of his face teased into random cracks, not even a shadow of youth remaining, yes, he had changed completely.

Then there was that way his jaw dropped when he heard my words, “I have come seeking my friend, Zulfi, and I want you to help me, Anupam,” that I am not able to forget.

He said nothing. His eyes had a stunned look. The troubling thought that he might any time start to weep occurred to me. So, hastily, in a firm voice, I added, “I want to start looking for him right away.”

A sad smile spread upon his face.

“You need rest, Viji,” he said finally.

I shot up and picking my things started towards the door. His wife moved aside making way for me.

I don’t understand! Even though Anupam and I have been close friends, his wife has shown me no warmth, ever.

But I don’t blame her. Which wife would welcome the woman who before their marriage had made her husband spend months in courtship only to finally give him the boot?

“Wait! Is it possible that you have forgotten everything?” Anupam stopped me at the door.

Two strong arms on my shoulders and a gaze held me in place. He was thinking and studying my face at the same time. Then in a calm voice he said, “Alright, let’s go and find Zulfi.”

***

“Remember that December night, Viji! We were on call together. At the respiratory ward. Is it 23 years already,” he looked my way as he drove the car.

“That night, no, that night is unforgettable. We were completely unaware of something much bigger building up that night. Outside as humanity shivered under the blankets on the streets, a white cloud of gas was descending on them. It whispered into their ears words that instantly convinced them to drop in death. The door of the residents’ room burst open. Like always, I was serenading you that night. There was a reason they used to call me Yours Forever, or was it Forever Lover. No,” he let out a dry chuckle, “it was Silent Sufferer.”

The windows of the car were down. Air currents were streaming in. They were murmuring and groaning. But Anupam’s words were toneless. “Rushing to the wards we found hundreds of twisting and moaning people, losing control over their bodies, crouched in the hallways, in the waiting room, at the entrance, at the entrance steps - everywhere! We spent the night washing their burning eyes with brine, purging lungs of excessive fluid, ignorant for many hours of what we should treat them for. Chests were on fire, mouths foamed, tissues burnt, and only when someone managed to reach the Carbide officials, we could start treating them for cyanide poisoning. We were raving like mad men, yet treating like robots one frothing patient after another that came in as if on an assembly line. Many other doctors and interns had joined us by 3 AM but hundreds more patients kept coming in. You chose then to collapse. I came to help you and all you could say was, “Zulfi is out there. I must save him.” Quickly we picked up supplies and masks, wore them ourselves and I drove you on my scooter. I knew well the address you kept screaming but was not prepared for what we saw on the way. With their eyes tightly squeezed, thousands of humans – men, women and children - forests of them marched towards the hospital, their cows, dogs and goats following them. A ghastly haze enveloped us, them, and with its cruel, dusky fingers it groped us, probed us, silently caressed us, sometimes pierced us. Bodies that fell were trundled over and left to die. They were just bodies after all, blood, skin, bones and waste matter and that night there was more waste matter. How could you have forgotten all that, Viji?”

I listened to him quietly, not knowing much what to say to him. And that I had no response to his story, did not bother him one bit. He kept going on.

“Of course, you cared for just one address, Shack number 152, JP Nagar! Well, we reached that door, locked from inside but in a few lunges we broke it open. Through the haze we could see two people lying on cots. The woman had expired, there was an infant too, also gone. You had the man. He lived still. You were shaking him, slapping his face and crying, urging him to get up. You made him sit up. When he woke up, he looked at you strangely, “It’s me! Viji,” you kept saying. I think he smiled. I rushed with the bottle of sodium-thiosulfate. He looked around as you told him about the gas leak. Then he saw his wife and child and attempted to move towards them. He muttered. His eyes widened and he managed to stand on his feet, the syringe still plunged in his vein. He shouted, holding on to your shoulders. And when you told him they were gone, he turned to rush towards them. I still remember how holding the bottle above his head I heard you say to him, “I will force you to live.” That’s when he grabbed the bottle from my hands and hurled it away. He lost his balance and was leaning on you and through your tears you said to him, “I have always loved you, Zulfi and I promise you I will never leave you.” My blood ran cold then but he smiled strangely as if mocking you, then suddenly made a grimace and buckled down. When he lifted his head, your arms were still around him and as he struggled he vomited and you had to let go of his collapsing body because your eyes burned in his vomit. He died in your arms, Viji. I find it hard to believe that you remember none of all this.”

Anupam had stopped the car.  “What is it?” I asked, looking around, feeling like I had been pulled out of a dream.

He said nothing. For some moments I sat in the broiling heat inside the stationary car and watched the chaotic scene outside. We were in a neighborhood engulfed by indignities. The front of a hut - his hut - was graced with a large mound of rubbish, atop which sat a wasted dog immersed in meditation. Several girls skittered around and a little boy sat on a cot next to his grandfather. The boy had forgotten to wear his underwear and the grandfather, also meditating, held in his hands the boy’s shorts.

But it was Anupam’s account that I found unsettling. In my years of practice I have heard hundreds of stories, many of them bizarre. I had thought I had left all of that behind.

But, I was here for another purpose: meet old friends who lived behind that door that had 152, J.P.Nagar painted upon it. I darted a sad glance at my good friend and walked out of the car towards the old man.

A quick exchange later I returned and taking my position on the passenger’s side, I said, “How could I have expected them to live here for 25 years? Let’s go home and check the white-pages.”

 

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