Castle Rock is a village in the Indian state of Karnataka, The town is located in the Western Ghats on the state's border with Goa..For many years the town marked the frontier between Portuguese-held Goa and British-held India. A metre gauge railway line used to connect the Goan towns of Vasco and Margao with the rest of India and was the only rail link in the state till the Konkan Railway started services in the early 1990s. The railway line from Marmagoa to Castle Rock was originally owned and operated by the West of India Portuguese Railway (which despite its name was a British company) and it connected with the line in British India from Londa For travellers between Portuguese held Goa and British India, and later between Goa and India, all the formalities of international travel including customs checks and verification of travel documents were carried out at Castle Rock. In the early-1990s, the Indian Railways converted the metre gauge line to broad gauge, thus connecting the old rail network with the rest of India.
Through the dense mist that had shrouded the railway lines of Castle Rock, the light rays beaming out of the train engine made its way forward; closely followed by its twin sibling-the sound waves emanating from the womb of the engine. The sight of the green flag fluttering in the chilly December wind aroused the maternal instincts of the train, and it gained momentum to pull forward the large undivided family of wagons bearing unrefined manganese ore from the mines of Northern Karnataka. With periodic thuds, each wagons passed the station, without bothering to acknowledge its existence. But the guard of the train was not forgetful of the etiquettes; he waved his flag and nodded at the station master, as a mark of comity, as a gesture of understanding, though not without an air of condescension.
The station master, Santosh Adiga, gazed at the train’s last wagon, till it faded into the foggy horizon. He stood at the platform, listening to the dying throes of the prodigal sound waves disowned by the rail matriarch.
“Santosh”. The sound waves reincarnated in the form of a hoarse cry. Santosh could see a heavily clothed blob of flesh approaching him, flashing a torch light. That was Krishna-the night shift Station manager. Despite the monkey cap worn on his head (which formed a funny lump on his head) and various layers of sweaters worn on his body (which accentuated his inherent plumpness), the huge man was wavering like a bamboo tree.
“Oh Santosh, it’s very cold out here. I can’t bear it.” He said, rhythmically emitting frosty smoke out of his jittering jaws-harmless nicotine free smoke. “How do you manage without any woollen cover?”
Santosh took out a bottle of brandy from his pocket and said. “Have some of this. It’ll keep you warm.”
“No,no. Alcohol is a taboo for me for the next forty days. I’ve taken the vow to go to Sabarimala. That means strict abstinence from all kinds of sensual experiences.”
“Oh, so you have turned faithful again, huh?”
“It’s because of my wife’s insistence. She thinks that this will give us a child. Though I fail to understand how forty days abstinence is helping that cause. But one has to succumb to such spousal pressures for the sake of marital harmony. Or else martial hegemony would prevail.” Krishna, very often, interspersed his statements with such melodramatic phrases. At one point of time, he was an aspiring writer. But fate brought placed him in the midst of railway lines and they choked the writer in him. Still, it came out sometimes, gasping for breath.
“Anyway, in that aspect I’m quite lucky. There are no such female disturbances in my life. Though I permit some short female interferences. Pleasant interferences”. He winked at Krishna with a sly smile. “I have to go now. Have a pleasant time. That Sahyadri Express will come by midnight. She is late as usual. Take proper care of her. Good Night.”
As he stepped out of the station, a thick column of cold air struck across his face, to freeze all his nerves at one instant. He wore the sweater and walked towards the jeep. The ’92 model Mahindra Jeep, which belonged to Konkan Railways, was lying there drenched in the mist. There was a love symbol inscribed on the foggy windscreen of the jeep-the handiwork of some ruffian- and it was getting melted. The four wheel drive jeep was the vehicle that best suited the terrain of Castle Rock. It had the feminine tact to negotiate the unruly ascends and the masculine grit to conquer the bumpy and curvy routes of Castle Rock. A cloudy slumber had possessed it, and after a lot of prodding and nudging, its engine woke up with a violent sneeze. It’s luminous, yellow fog lights lit up the entire road, and it made its way forward with occasional coughs and sneezes.
Castle Rock:-he very often wondered if the name was a misnomer, inasmuch as there were no castles there. Rocks, there were plenty of them. So were trees, streams, waterfalls, birds, landslides, leeches and monkeys. But the human population was very less. It largely consisted of the railway employees. Perched comfortably amidst the rain forests of Western Ghats, and sandwiched between Karnataka and Goa, the obscure place owed its identity to the railway line connecting Belgaum and Margaon. Railway station was the castle there; and the arrival and departure of trains were the main events there.
The jeep meandered through the convoluted road. He’d passed his quarter’s long time back. But he was in a mood for a night time ride.
‘Department’s jeep, its fuel, and my time. Who else should care?’
The twitter of the crickets and the whistling of the woods were in concord with the whimper of the Mahindra engine. That impromptu night time symphony attained its crescendo when it reached near a waterfall. A slender stream of water was plummeting through the well chiselled rock path with a restrained roar. That was the miniature of the gigantic Dudhsagar waterfalls situated some five kilometres down the road.
He parked the jeep at the bank of the stream and walked towards the foot of the falls. As he waded through the stream, cold water seeped in through his trousers and gnawed at his born marrow, after freezing his skin and numbing his nerves. He took the half empty bottle of brandy from his pocket and held it against the fall, to let the poison get adulterated with the pristine water. Completely drenched, and shivering spasmodically, he came back to his jeep. A swig from the bottle provided him respite from the chill.
He recalled the sight he happened to see earlier that day at the same venue-that of a young couple sharing their moments of romance and joy. Standing at the foot of the waterfalls, behind the cover of the rocks, they were fully drenched and totally immersed in love. Their mouths delved into each other’s; hands explored the treasures of pleasure in each other’s body, filling the air with their musical moans. Like a snake, his eyes crawled into their garden of bliss and maligned its sanctity. Like all young lovers, they were also oblivious of the surroundings and did not take note of the intrusion. It was not the curiosity of an adolescent or the envy of a depressed lover that caused him to stare at them shamelessly. He was seeing himself there, as if in a mirror- a mirror held towards the past. He could see himself there. And her too.
Shreya! Twenty two years ago, when his mind was sharper, hair was darker, reflexes were quicker and thoughts were bohemian, she was his heart, his soul, his breath and his throb. She was not endowed with an exceptional beauty that could make a man gasp for his breath. But she was blessed with a grace that appealed to him. Her eyes; it was her eyes that conquered him. Those light brown eyes, which were always restless like a fish on land, could emote all subtleties of expression with the finesse of a Bharatanatyam danseuse. Her short stature, long and angular face, brisk pace of walking, squeaky little voice and prominent frontal teeth gave her the demeanour and appearance of a mouse-a cute little mouse. Once he told her that, in a crude manner though.
“You look like a rodent.”
Her golden skin turned crimson red with rage.
“Yeah? I can bite like a rodent too.” And she proved her claim with a deep bite on his neck. The pain he felt when her teeth pierced into the flesh of his neck ,and the pleasure he felt when the tenderness of her small body pressed against his, lost their separate identities and amalgamated into a feeling of inexplicable ecstasy. In that joyous moment, he let his hands slide down her spine, to caress the roundness of her rear. She tapped his chin.
“You are a rascal.”
“And you’re a mouse. My Minnie Mouse.”
“Minnie Mouse and Goofy don’t make a very good pair. Or do they?”
No. They didn’t. Santosh examined his neck in the rear-view mirror. Bite marks don’t remain for twenty two years. But scars of separation do remain intact in the heart for a life time.
Romance was a revolution for him. But that could not surpass the tyranny of his mother. She was vehemently opposed to the idea of her son marrying a non-Brahmin,non-Kannadiga girl. Thus the sharpness of his youthful idealism and free-spirited thoughts were blunted by maternal rage.
His mother’s was a force which he could never defy. She had lost her husband in a train accident in the sixth year of marital life. The premature visitation of widowhood catalysed the metamorphosis of that otherwise coy and submissive woman into an assertive and resolute single mother. The complete non-cooperation on the part of her relatives and the need to rear two young kids necessitated that transformation. After the death of her husband, she secured a bank job in Bangalore, and shifted from her hometown of Udupi.
She took absolute control over both his and his elder brother’s lives. She regulated their daily schedule; determined their thoughts and formed their opinions. Her diktats were inviolable; terms were non-negotiable. Their individualities didn’t gain any recognition in that reign of matriarchal tyranny.
For his brother, who had always been subservient and loyal to his mother, that was never an issue. But that was not the case with Santosh. The adolescent years, where the male ego erects from its childhood dormancy, sowed the seeds of defiance and chauvinism in him. Inspired from the social stereotypes, he clearly defined gender roles in his mind; and he found that his mother was not fitting into his scheme of things. Dominance and superiority exercised by his mother was not acceptable to him. Perhaps, he would not have taken objection had it been exercised by his father. However, his inherent cowardice hindered the external manifestation of his cultivated rebellion and he passed his adolescent years with disgruntlement. Then Shreya came to his life with solace.
When he found the much yearned for tenderness and submissiveness in a female, he fell in love with her. That relationship salvaged his drooping male ego and concealed his inferiority complex. But that didn’t materialize, for he could not muster the courage to defy the maternal diktat.
“Spineless!!” That was what Shreya termed him, before going out of his life. Thus, with an ego badly battered and deeply bruised by two female interventions, he continued to exist. Yes, he did bow to his mother’s commands again, by marrying a girl of her choice. The fact that Shreya got married to a wealthy man and was living with all merriment, instigated him to do that. However, that was another harrowing experience for him and it did not last long. She too walked out of his life, transforming him into a hardcore misogynist.
In one way it could be said that the Indian Railways redeemed his life, both from the clutches of his mother and from neurotic depression. For someone who’d started to loathe all sorts of emotional attachments and familial obligations, the job which facilitated migration from one place to another was very relieving. He found tranquil in the clamour of railway stations; found sense and purpose in regulating the journey and destiny of trains. Two decades of railway service brought him to the hill town of Castle Rock. All this while, unbeknownst to him, his mother was slowly succumbing to the travails of old age.
The shrill of incessant honking woke him up from his drunken stupor. He pulled apart his reluctant eyelids and looked at the wrist watch. 5:30 AM. He saw the image of a giant truck getting impatient in the rear-view mirror. He’d parked the jeep obstructing the way. He moved it aside to give way to the truck. As it passed by, its helper put his head outside and hurled a lot of profanities at him, in some language unintelligible to him. Sounded like Malayalam or Tamil. He turned his jeep around and drove to his quarters.
After having a fresh hot water bath, he was planning to savour the dawn with Deccan Chronicle and hot tea. Then there was this lousy phone call.
“Good morning brother. It’s me Arvind.”
“Hello brother. How are you?”
“I’m good. Hello...Hello...” The line was cracking.
“Santosh, can you hear me now? Okay,I wanted to remind you about the registration of our land deal in Bangalore. If you could do it soon...”
“Yes, I know that. In fact I’ve already made plans to go there next week.”
“Good. I just wanted to...Hello...Hello...” Again disturbance.
“Brother, I can hear you.”
“If you are going, don’t forget to meet mother...” The disturbances surfaced again.
“Hello!Hello!” The ISD line went dead.
His brother had moved to US with his family a year ago. Mother used to stay with him till then. But he could not procure a visa for her. Hence, he wanted Santosh to take care of her.
“I can’t do it. I live alone. That too, in a god forsaken place, where the conditions are not suitable for an old lady.” He opposed the proposition vehemently.
“Why don’t you try for a transfer to a better place?”
“What do you think? Am I the one who is running the railway ministry?”
“If you really don’t want to do a thing, you will get a lot of excuses for that. I know how you pulled strings to get a transfer to this god-forsaken place, so that you could be away from all responsibilities.”
“If you are so concerned, then drop your plan to go to US. Then the issue will be settled.”
His brother could not give any reply.
“Whatever you say, I can’t take mother along with me.” Santosh said categorically.
“Then what? Should we throw her into some old age home, as if she is a destitute?” His brother had always been critical of his indifferent attitude towards his mother.
“Brother, I think that is the only viable option. It might sound callous, but that’s better for her than staying with me”. Thus, she was entrusted to an old age home in Bangalore, which was being managed by Catholic nuns.
Two weeks later, he was in Bangalore. The change from the sedate and hilly hamlet to the cosmopolitan city ,throbbing with the vibrancy of the highly globalized and liberalized post-91 generation, was refreshing for him. He was amused by their romantic antics. During his days, romance used to be a private and clandestine affair. Now, he could see boys proudly flaunting their girls along with their digital gadgets and girls openly wearing their love on their sleevelesses. He wondered if he and Shreya would have behaved so audaciously, had they been romancing in these times. Even if it was so, with a mother like his, their fate would not have been different.
The campus of the St.Mary’s Mercy Home stood like a refreshing oasis in the dusty and arid surroundings of the suburb of Krishnarajapuram. It would be his first visit, after his mother was shifted there. The sight of nuns, clad in white robes and black veils, watering and pruning the lush garden welcomed him. When he intimated them about his purpose of visit, he was taken to the office of Mother Superior.
“Here comes the son, after a long hiatus. What is the reason behind this newfound concern for your mother?” The mother superior said in a reprimanding tone.
“I’m really sorry. My job keeps me very busy.”
“So what? There are other modes of communication. For the past one year, your mother has been with us. All this while, there has not been a single phone call or a letter from your part. This is highly irresponsible.”
“I’m really sorry about that. How’s my mother now?”
“You needn’t be apologetic to me. God is watching all our actions and we’ll be accountable to him.” She took a pause before continuing. “We’re taking proper care of your mother. Apart from a slightly high blood pressure, she has no physical ailments. But, of late, she has been exhibiting some behavioural changes. She has become, kind of, reclusive these days; and a bit absent-minded too. It seems that she is living in her own world. I don’t know, if it’s the usual senility associated with old age. Anyway, your coming might be big relief for her.”
He was led to her room. The door was ajar. Still he knocked it. On getting no response, he pushed it open slowly. He saw his mother sitting on a chair, turned against him, reading something. The room was immaculately clean and was in absolute order- a clear indication of her usual self.
“Amma” He called her. She tilted her head sideways and looked over her shoulders. There was no palpable change of expression in her face. He walked towards her, and sat on a chair besides her. But, she was deeply engrossed in her activity, and didn’t bother to acknowledge his presence. She was flipping through the pages of her wedding album, refreshing the black and white memories of her short-lived marriage. He remembered that she used to do it often. He kept the polythene bag, containing some oranges he’d bought for her, on the table. Did the citrus fruit symbolise the sourness existing between them?
Anyway, the crackling of polythene turned her attention to him. She looked at him; rather stared at him blankly. Then, gradually, like the blossoming of a bud, a thin smile broke across her wrinkled face. She ran her fingers over his stubbly cheeks.
“You came! I’ve been waiting for you, all these days.” She said affectionately.
“I’m really sorry that...”
“No.” She interjected abruptly. “Now that you’ve come, I don’t want to listen to any excuses. You’ve made me really glad.”
She turned her attention to the photo album again. She was glancing at a photo, where, both she and her husband were standing in front of a waterfall; must’ve been taken shortly after their marriage. Probably, during their honeymoon trip. That was a cute photo, with his father posing with a contrived seriousness and mother neutralizing it with a bashful smile. They were holding their hands, with great unease though. Perhaps, the photographer might have forced them to do so. The photograph had become faded and had become almost unrecognizable. But, having seen it a lot of times, it was deeply imprinted in her mind.
“Will you...will you take me here? To this waterfall?” She asked.
Santosh was a bit puzzled. The demand was totally unexpected. Moreover, he had no clue which waterfall it was.
She kept her hand over his. “I really want to go there once more. Last time, I couldn’t enjoy it much. I was really scared, of the waterfall and...” She beamed that same bashful smile at him. “Please Balu. Won’t you take me there?”
That startled him. “Balu? Amma, have you not recognized me? It’s me, Santosh.”
She stared at him blankly, again. Then, with a dead face, she returned to the album and flipped through its pages, in a mechanical manner.
“Amma, have you forgotten me? Look at me. Talk to me.” Santosh was getting irritated at her behaviour.
But she didn’t respond. After a while she started to cry.
“I know, I’ve been disowned by everyone. There is no one to take care of me. Even Balu has abandoned me.” Between her sobs, she said. Santosh got astonished. He had no idea how to handle the situation. Letting her cry in peace, he slowly came out of the room and like a coward, he left the place.
He sat under a tree in the playground opposite to the home. A group of children were playing football there. In retrospect, he found his behaviour inappropriate. Without trying to console her, or without trying to find out what exactly was going through her mind, he came out sheepishly. An escapist attitude! The sight of his mother breaking down, destabilized his thought process. He’d never perceived her as capable of such emotions. And, why did she call him Balu? Who was Balu? The only person that could refer to was, his father: Balachandra Adiga. But why did she...? Is she thinking....?
He could not think that thought. A reckless shot caused the football to hit his leg. The children were asking him to hit it back. He stood still, lost in his thoughts about mother, much to the dismay of the footballers. Then, on an instinct, he hit the ball back forcefully and took his cell phone.
“Hello Murali, can I get one more ticket for day after tomorrow’s Bangalore-Belgaum Express? ...Oh, it’s available...Thank you so much...Here are the passenger details. Bhagyalakshmi Adiga, Female, 74 years old.”
The Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation bus, from Belgaum, made its way up, through the serpentine road, to Castle Rock. The mild rays of the afternoon sun were giving some respite from the onslaught of the winter. Bhagyalakshmi was sleeping peacefully, with her head resting on her son’s shoulders. Throughout the train journey till Belgaum, she was very silent and didn’t throw any tantrums, as feared by him. The wind was getting chillier and harsher, and he tied a scarf around her head. That did disturb her for a while; but he patted her reassuringly, and she returned to her sleep. He had never seen his mother so vulnerable, and was finding it difficult to come to terms with it. Her dominant and assertive self was more preferable to him. His heart was getting heavy with a feeling of guilt and sorrow. He could not believe that he forsook his mother for the sake of a whimsical fantasy of the youth. That poor lady undertook all sorts of hardships to bring her kids up; and when she was in the twilight of her life, none of her kids were around to protect her.
By evening, the bus reached Castle Rock. He took her to his quarters.
“Why do you stay in such a lousy place?” She commented as she entered his place.
He just smiled at her; the way he used to smile at her, when, as a child, he used to get reprimanded for keeping the room lousy.
“Amma, why don’t you take a bath and get fresh? I’ll arrange for hot water.”
“Alright. I’ll do that.”
He felt that she was behaving quite normally; though a bit over friendly. Maybe, the long separation from her sons had caused the softening of her mind. Or, was she perceiving him as...? No, he couldn’t further that thought.
He had to report for night duty that day. He’d asked the servant girl to stay with mother at night.
“Where are you going?” She asked as he was getting ready.
“I’ve got night duty today. Don’t worry. This girl Kalpana will be here with you tonight. You needn’t worry about anything. I can’t afford to miss today’s duty.”
“No. Please don’t go. I’m really scared.”
“The station is just half a kilometre away. And, I’ll be back by tomorrow morning. There is nothing to be scared of here.”
“Whatever you say I won’t let you go.” She came closer to him and embraced him. “Balu, please, don’t leave me alone again” And she started to cry.
Santosh was totally clueless. “Fine. I’m not going.”
He took out his phone.
“Hello Krishna, could you do me a favour? Could you do overtime for two more hours? My mother is, slightly unwell. I’ll be there once she goes to sleep. Thank you so much. What? Sahyadri Express is late again! Okay, I’ll take care of that.”
Once mother slept, he left for the station. There were two goods train and the ever late Sahyadri Express scheduled to arrive that night. The long wait at the cabin was sleep inducing, and he splashed some cold water on his face, to ward off sleep. He looked at the image of his wet face in the mirror. He closely observed his facial features: the square face, long nose, thick moustache, thin lips and the patches of baldness attacking from both the ends of the forehead. Yes, he had a striking resemblance to his father. Everyone used to say that to him. But he was noticing it for the first time. Could that mean that she has...?
There was a long whistle-Sahyadri Express had arrived, putting an end to his long wait.
Two days later, he decided to fulfil his mother’s wish. He decided to take her to the Dudhsagar waterfalls near Castle Rock. He hoped that she wouldn’t insist on seeing the same waterfall.
There was a small railway station near the waterfall, where no trains used to stop. He parked the jeep near the station. The gigantic waterfall, wedged between two hills, was about 80 meters tall. The railway line emerging out of one hill through a tunnel passed exactly bisecting the course of the waterfall, which was inclined at an angle of about forty five degrees. That meant, half the waterfall passed below the railway bridge.
They climbed the rock steps from the railway bridge, which led to a point, from where a side view of the fall was possible. They could see the milky water jetting down through the huge arches of the railway bridge. With childlike curiosity, she wondered at the grandeur of the waterfall.
‘She hasn’t realized the deception’. Santosh thought.
“You have made me really happy. Thank you so much.” She embraced him. “Why did you leave me alone? Where were you all these days? You don’t know, how worried I was. I was just getting to know you. Then, then you vanished out of my life. Now, promise me, that you won’t go away from me. Balu, don’t leave me. I won’t be able to bear it again.”
Santosh was getting puzzled. He pulled himself out of her embrace. He raised her face at him.
“Amma, Have you recognized me? Tell me, do you know me?”
“Why do you ask me such questions? Of course I know you.”
“No. You don’t. I’m Santosh;your youngest son Santosh. And I’m not your...Please; don’t do this drama before me.” He roared lest his voice would be lost in the waterfall.
She looked at him-that blank stare again.
“Santosh! I know. Santosh!” She muttered and turned against him and looked down at the waterfall. A thick cloud of mist was ascending up from the foot of the hill, and they were gradually getting enveloped by that. That caused the mercury levels to drop.
Santosh was feeling completely lost. He wanted his mother to recognize him; to understand him; to understand how badly he wants to repent for his misdeeds, his ingratitude, his irreverence and irresponsibility; and to know how reformed he was. But the delusions of her mind were denying him the opportunity to redeem himself. He must have been created in the image of his father; but that does not mean that... The creature is forbidden from usurping the role of the creator. The divisions between reality and myth were getting blurred in his mind. The conundrum of reality was confronting him: whether reality exists as it is or it exists as per one’s thoughts and beliefs.
He thought about the story his mother used to tell him, when, as a four year old kid he used to cry for his father.
“Appa has gone to gather all the stars from the sky. Remember, you were crying for them. Look at the sky, there are plenty of stars. And it will take a lot of days to gather them all. Once the job is done, he will come back with a huge sack containing all the stars. That will make us rich.” And, every night he used to look up to see if the number of stars had come down. That story, despite its apparent implausibility, consoled him and gave him hope about father’s return.
A created reality, however deceptive it was, could be more desirable than the real reality.
He walked towards his mother, who was shivering in the cold breeze. He took out a woollen shawl from his bag and covered her with that.
“Bhagyam” He called her with trembling lips; the way his father used to call her. She turned back to face him. Her face was lit up with astonishment and happiness.
“Bhagyam, let’s go. It’s getting cold here.” He mustered courage and said with conviction
She nodded and smiled at him-that bashful photogenic smile. As they were coming down the slippery rock steps, she leaned on to his shoulders. The misty cloud descended along with them, and transformed as Balu and Bhagyam, they emerged out of it.
A ray of light was coming out of the tunnel, accompanied by a whistle. That was the Sahyadri Express, which was surprisingly on right time. They watched its compartments passing through the bridge with periodic thuds. When the train had gone, they proceeded to the station, where the ’92 model Mahindra jeep was waiting for them. The mother-son duo entered the jeep and it followed the Sahyadri Express, to Castle Rock.