Paul keenly observed the steam waves coming out of the pores of the round spongy idlis placed in the casserole. They came out slowly, with a bit of reluctance, and curled up to make patterns and diffused into air.
‘Come, have us.’ They were beckoning him.
The thought of breaking them into fine pieces and relishing them after soaking them in rich sambar and coconut chutney made his mouth drool. He could eat at least ten of them. After that he would lick his fingers and let out a loud burp as a token of contentment. Of course, his son and daughter would find it disgusting. Their convent school education would prevent them from appreciating the joys of primitive way of eating. The use of knife, fork and other weapons at the dining table was not meant for him. Finally, he would wash the food down with sugary tea. That, would be a heavenly breakfast.
‘Two idlis or dosas, and a cup of milk or tea without sugar.’-That was the prescribed breakfast for him. Two idlis! They were like starters for him. He could hear his stomach growl. He’d already met his prescribed limit. But his hunger was not satiated. He looked at the casserole.
‘Come, have us.’ They beckoned him again.
He was feeling very weak. To eat or not to eat-his mind sank into this gastric dilemma. It was more of a necessity than an indulgence. He reached out for the casserole and put four idlis in his plate.
“No! No! Holy Mother of God, what do you think you are doing?” His wife, who was boiling milk at the stove, rushed to him. “You already had two idlis. You can’t have more. I say, put them back.” She commanded.
“But, Mini, I’m still hungry.” He pleaded.
“No way. You remember, your blood sugar levels were at 262 as on last check-up. 262! After you went and feasted at your colleague’s wedding last Sunday, it shot up like anything. One has to have some sense of responsibility; at least about one’s own health.” She was categorical. “Now, put them back. As for your hunger, I’ll give you a glass of milk. Have it and go to office.” He could see his children trying hard to control their laughter.
“To hell with your milk! To hell with the sugar levels! What to eat, when to eat, how to eat and how much to eat-I’ll decide. In this house, I’m the one who makes decisions. You get me. Do you get me? I’ll do as I wish. No one will question me.” He lashed out at her.
She was taken aback by this sudden outburst. Her eyes moistened.
“Okay. Go ahead. Do whatever you like.” She took the casserole and banged it in front of him. In that force, two three idlis bounced out of it and fell on the floor. “Have it. Have all of them. Whether your blood sugar levels go up or down, why should I bother about that? Do as you wish.” Saying this she stormed out of the kitchen. “All these days, I’ve been keeping an eye on your sugar levels and preparing you special dishes as per the dietician’s prescription. And what do I get in return? I get barked at for no reason. Am I a slave here?” She said, as she walked into her room and closed the door.
Paul stood there, feeling ashamed at his irrational behavior. He took the idlis lying on the floor and threw it out of the window for the hens and crows to nibble. Then he divided the ones in his plate into his son’s and daughter’s plates. Milk was getting boiled at the stove. His daughter rushed to attend to it and brought it him. She also got him the tiffin box packed. After drinking the glass of milk, he walked out of the kitchen and took the medicine box from the top of the refrigerator. Usually, it was his wife, who got him the medicines for the day. He fumbled with the prescription, and somehow managed to get the medicines for the day. Before stepping out, he knocked at his wife’s door. There was no response.
“Mini, I’m leaving.” No response was forthcoming.
“I said I’m leaving.” No response again. He walked out to the bus stop.
The bus had started to roll when he reached the bus stop. He had to chase it down to get in. He was panting heavily when he got in. Luckily, he managed to find a seat; a window seat. The sky was overcast. He hoped that it wouldn’t rain. That would cause everyone to down the shutters of the windows, thereby making the interior very humid and stuffy. It was an hour long journey to Thiruvananthapuram, where he worked in the State Revenue Department. He closed his eyes and made an effort to catch some sleep. But the thoughts about morning’s incidents were disturbing him.
‘Why did I behave like that? After all, she was taking care of me. She wants me to be healthy and strong. And I responded very immaturely, like a kid.
Nonetheless, she could do it in a very tender manner. I mean, she need not be such a tough disciplinarian. She keeps on commanding-‘eat this, drink that, and don’t eat anymore.’-like a prison warden. Why can’t she be like the wives of films and say ‘Oh honey, you can have only two idlis. What will we do, if, God forbid, something happens to you? You don’t want to abandon us, right?’ and caress my hair or pat my shoulders affectionately. Then I would oblige, most willingly. Alright, drop the ‘honey’ part and the ‘caressing and patting’ part. She might be too embarrassed to do so in front of the kids. But she can say it in a softer tone. Yes, that she can surely.
I’m not the only one to blame for today’s incidents. Last night she had taunted me by asking ‘Have you got any more control over the affairs of the family? Are you still the man of the house?’ It hurt me badly. Throughout the night, the nasty remark pricked me.
Yesterday night, after dinner, I was watching T.V comfortably. Not anything in particular. I was just surfing through the channels. My son had been watching some English movie. I snatched the remote control from him. I just wanted to assert myself. ‘Look, I’m the man of the family. And I bought this T.V too. So I can watch whatever in it, whenever I want.’ My son must have been grumbling under his breath. But I didn’t care about that. Thus, I was indulging in this lame, egoistical activity. Then I heard this conversation happening between my wife and daughter.
‘Elsa, what were you doing till now?’
‘I was talking on the phone.’
‘For so long? It’s been an hour or so. And what was the need to go all the way up on the terrace to talk? Couldn’t you have talked here?’
‘Mummy, the signal here is very weak. So I have to go to the terrace.’
‘Hmm. Anyway, who were you having this long conversation with?’
‘With a friend of mine.’
‘The friend doesn’t have a name?’
‘How does it matter to you?’
‘It matters. I want to know who this friend is.’
‘I was talking to Rahul,’
‘Oh, Rahul? I thought so. I want to know what’s between you and this fellow. Day and night you waste time chatting with him. You do group study together; project work together. Girl, tell me. What’s going on?’
‘It’s none of your business.’
‘Of course it is. I want to know what your business with this fellow is.’
‘Can’t you understand? We’re just good friends.’
‘Friends? Don’t give me that nonsense. I’ve been through your age. I can very well understand the tricks of youngsters. Don’t try to fool me.’
‘Oh, have you gone mad? What do you want to hear from me? Yes,I love him. We are in love and we will live together. Is that enough? Are you happy now?’
Though I was pretending to be watching television, I was keenly following their conversation. Elsa’s declaration was like the dropping of a bombshell. I don’t think she meant it. I hope she did not. Anyway, at that point of time, I could not do much about that. I was feeling very weak and nauseatic. The dinner comprising two chapattis, cabbage curry and a glass of tomato soup had digested away in no time. My stomach was burning. I could sense acidity building up. My heart beats went faster. My body started to sweat and shake. I thought I’d faint. I wanted to eat something desperately. Then my wife came to the T.V room.
‘Haven’t you heard your daughter? She’s in love with that Rahul!’
I somehow managed to get up from the chair. I didn’t know how to react. My head was spinning. All I could think about was food, and only food.
‘Mini, I’m feeling very hungry. Can I get something to eat?’ I mumbled sheepishly.
‘Ah, brilliant! Here the daughter wants to run off with someone, and the father is bothered about only wining and dining. I’ve heard about some emperor playing violin or something while his city was burning. You excel even him.’
‘Mummy, you mean Emperor Nero?’ My son chose the most inappropriate moment to show off his historical knowledge.
I ignored them and walked to the kitchen. Food was my only preoccupation then. I also wanted to escape from the scene of confrontation. Had I been in my normal healthy self, I would have got the situation easily under control. But since I’ve been diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure some months ago, I always feel very weak and emaciated throughout the day. The special diet prescribed by the dietician does not satisfy me at all. My mind is always preoccupied with thoughts about the next meal and my blood sugar levels
I drank a glass of water. That was a big relief. There were some bananas lying on the table. I’d already met the prescribed limit of one banana a day. I ate them. I thought I’d die if I didn’t eat. I sat there for a while. The conversation between them had resumed. Meanwhile, my son intervened, filling in for my absence.
“Mummy, I suggest you adopt a reasonable approach to the situation. She’s a girl of eighteen and she’s got the right to make her own decisions and choices. I don’t think it is right to unnecessarily interfere in her personal life.” When I heard my son’s rationalizations my heart beats went fast again. I could sense my blood pressure also increasing. I preferred to sit there for a while and let my body calm down, instead of jumping into that milieu.
“What rubbish? Holy Mother of God, what kind of devil has possessed these people? Look, I’m her mother and I’m responsible for her. So I can interfere and I will.”
“Mummy, our lives would be much better, if we refrain from assuming responsibility for other’s lives and remain responsible for our own lives”. A very thoughtful statement made by my son; but again, inappropriate for the moment.
“I’m not listening to all this nonsense. Elsa, give me your cell phone. You don’t need it anymore.”
“No. I say give it to me. I’ll ensure that you won’t talk to random guys on phone.”
After she confiscated Elsa’s phone, things calmed down. Even my body calmed down. I walked upstairs, absent-mindedly carrying a banana peel with me. Mini had gone to the bedroom. My son had resumed his T.V watching. I saw Elsa crying. She came to me and hugged me. I didn’t know whether to scold her, advise her or console her. So I didn’t say anything and just patted her reassuringly.
I went to the bedroom. Mini was lying on the bed, pretending to be asleep. I held her hand and said. “Mini, take it easy on her. I don’t think she meant it. She just said it out of her irritation.”
“Yes. You are right, as always. And I am the wrong one.” She mumbled. Then she delivered that snub. “Let me ask you something. Have you got any more control over the affairs of the family? Are you still the man of the house?”That bruised my ego badly. My mind was simmering with anger. The events of today’s morning were just a manifestation of my bubbling anguish.
This damn disease has weakened my body as well as my mind. I think it has even shaken the authoritative position of being the patriarch of the family. A position of authority, after all, is something which rests upon other’s perception. When I get perceived as someone weak who has got no say even in matters of his diet, my authoritative position would naturally get eroded. Moreover, I don’t feel the strength to exercise any sort of authority over others. So I submit myself to everyone. But I have got an ego too; the male chauvinistic ego. I’ve heard our priests preaching that ego was a sign of weakness and not a symbol of strength. Anyway, I can’t get rid of it now. I know, it has caused me a lot of troubles. Sometimes, it feels the need to assert itself and it will wake up from its slumber shaking off all sorts of controls, thereby leading to events like that of today’s morning.’
“Statue junction! Statue junction!” The announcement of the bus conductor woke him up from his thoughts. He alighted from the bus and walked towards his office.
Land documents, conveyance deeds, revenue registers –all these were vying to grab his attention. But his attention was completely devoted to the rumblings of his stomach. He kept on looking at his watch. There was a lot of time left for lunch break. Till then, he sank himself in various wearying transactions of land revenue.
Finally, the much yearned for moment arrived. The sight of the needles of the office clock aligning themselves to declare 1’o clock uplifted his drooping spirits. However that was just a momentary high. With a lot of anticipation, he opened his tiffin box. But the sight of two chapattis and cabbage curry put him off. He had been eating the same insipid stuff for the past one week.
‘Damn the dietician! I want to have some real food.’ He thought. He shut his tiffin box and walked out.
He could see a lot of restaurants and food joints soliciting hungry people with their fancy names and pictorial depiction of the delicious food varieties available in their menu. ‘FOOD MAHAL’, ‘SWAD’, ‘ANNA POORNA’, ‘AAHAR BHAVAN’-there were a lot of options. He was spoilt for choice. Before making a decision, he decided to have a banana milk-shake. The sweet cold milk-shake relieved his parched throat and cooled his mind. Then he subjected all the restaurants to his scrutiny. He could see a lot of people swarming into ‘FOOD MAHAL’. He decided to follow the herd. One should not be too venturing in matters of food.
As he got in, the nice aroma of chicken biriyani filled his nostrils. Without any second thoughts, he placed the order. In a short while, biriyani arrived; delicious biriyani prepared in Malabar style. He inhaled the spicy vapours emanating out of it. The waft of cinnamon and pepper drove him to a transcendental ecstasy. He dipped his fingers into it and savoured it leisurely. ‘Hmm... Yummy!’ He exclaimed. He bit chicken pieces off the bones, masticated them and drank their meaty juices with pleasure. He was feeling very happy. ‘Have chicken biriyani everyday and keep depression at bay!’ He thought.
In a short while, biriyani was over. But how could lunch be complete without desserts? He ordered one gulab jamun. He was having a sweet after a long time. But how can one gulab jamun fulfil his unsatisfied sugar craving of months. He ordered one more. No. Even that wasn’t sufficient. He had one more. He ate to the full of his stomach and to the contentment of his mind. Culinary delight was something which he had not experienced for months.
But every crest has got its trough. The joys of his gluttonous exploits were withering away, as his body was grappling with a feeling of uneasiness. His head was aching and body was shivering, consequent to the rise in his sugar levels and blood pressure. He searched for his medicines in the pocket. But he’d left them at the office, which seemed miles away. The callous sun had driven away the monsoon clouds and was shining brightly. He found it difficult to make his steps. His heart was racing against his chest. He thought it would break his rib cage and come out. He felt a terrible pain in his chest. Grabbing his chest and gasping for breath, he walked ahead slowly.
‘Oh God, it seems my end is near’. He thought. He could see a church nearby- ‘Saint George Forane Church’. ‘If I’m dying, it’s better to die in a church.’ With this thought, he walked inside the church.
A huge imposing statue of Saint George, mounted on a horse and inserting a spear into the mouth of a diabolic serpent welcomed him. There was no one inside the church. It was quiet and peaceful there. He sat on a chair and took deep breaths. His eyelids were feeling very heavy. He feared that if he closed them, he would die instantly. With great effort, he raised his eyes to the giant crucifix at the altar and indulged in his final thoughts.
“Oh Holy Son of God, I know that my time is up. I don’t know if I’m sad or glad about it. As you know, there are a lot of unfinished things; and unrealized dreams too. I would prefer to exit this world with a sense of accomplishment. But, if you decide that I’d enough of life, what can I do but oblige.
Nonetheless, I will be glad to be free from all my ailments. This diabetes and high blood pressure-it’s a real pain to live with them. I don’t know why you have punished me with these diseases. I don’t drink. Nor do I smoke. I attend all Sunday Holy Masses without fail. I give generous donations to church too. And I believe I have lived according to your commandments. I admit, I often get angry with my wife and kids and say things which ought not to be said. But I don’t think that would constitute such a grave offence to merit a punishment like this. Lord, let me tell you. This family is a big headache. You didn’t have one. So you won’t understand. Had you been in my place, you would also have lost your temper. I’ve such a great family!
I have to confess one more thing. I often take bribes for doing my job. I know it’s illegal and all. But I don’t remember any of your commandments saying ‘Thou shalt not take bribes’. See, I don’t take bribes to help people get illegal things done. I only take bribes from deserving candidates for delivering their legal due. It’s just like a service charge. Lord, you haven’t done a government job too. So you won’t understand. I don’t think it’s a big deal. Everyone does it. When I see the heroes of films fighting against corruption and preaching ideals, I feel like scoffing at them. Give them a nagging and pompous wife, two good-for-nothing kids and the burden of EMIs; then they will throw away all their ideals. When one is young and unmarried one can preach all these things. These are not meant for middle class family men like me.
If these diseases are the punishment for my corrupt practices, what about those ministers and bureaucrats who go on doing scams worth crores? They lead the best of the lives without any hassles. And you punish small fries like me? What kind of justice is this?
Lord, I can’t comprehend your ways. I’m not that intelligent. Let your wish be done. That’s all I can say. I have only one prayer to make. Please take care of family after I’m gone. Although, they are a big head ache, I care about them. My wife Mini, she is a real gem. She is really beautiful and talented. I think she deserved someone better than me. I’m a simple man who belongs to the multitudes. Mini, during her college days was a real star, who would have made it big in life had I not married her. But familial pressures caused her to marry an idiot like me and remain a housewife for life. My father-in-law used to tell me that she’d real interest in teaching and pleaded to let her pursue it. But I was adamant against it. My old-fashioned ways could not appreciate the thought of women going for work. They should just bear and rear children and should do the household chores. This was my notion those days. Oh Lord, I was such a fool. I confined her to the kitchen. For a gifted woman like her, it’s worse than life imprisonment. She has never resented that; at least openly. She cares about me diligently. And what do I do? As she said, ‘bark at her for no reason’.
I don’t know whether I love her or not. I’ve never told her ‘I love you’ as they do it in films. Nor has she. But I can’t bear the thought of living without her. I think it’s the same for her. Twenty-five years of co-habitation has made us used to each other. We’re conditioned to each other’s follies, idiosyncrasies and frailties. So we can’t live without each other. I don’t know if that can be called love. Anyway Lord, grant Mini the strength to bear my loss. And Mini, please forgive me. For everything.
My son, Joseph, is very peculiar. He thinks that he is a great intellectual. But actually he is a real fool, who has got no practical sense at all. He completed his engineering course some months ago. I thought he would get some high paying job in some software company. But he turned down all the offers. He told me that he wanted to start his own company. I told him about our financial difficulties and tried to persuade him to take up any of those offers. He retorted ‘Money is just an abstraction. There are higher values in life like creative satisfaction and intellectual liberation and we should pursue them’. I don’t know what he meant. Will the bank manager let go of the loan arrears if I tell him that money was just an abstraction? I never understand what he says. He keeps on quoting some philosophers and makes random arguments. I think too much of reading has ruined him. Too much of culture is also not good. He won’t listen to me. But he can accept the stupid thoughts of all these philosophers. I think he goes only by the written word. Perhaps, I should also pen down my advices and give it to him in book-form. Then he might obey me. Anyway, it’s not possible anymore.
Last week he demanded seventy-thousand rupees. He said he was setting up some company with his friends. I asked him ‘Isn’t money an abstraction?’. I just wanted to taunt him. But he got really furious and gave me a long lecture about how Malayalees lack enterprising skills and how they discourage any of their fellows who had some entrepreneurial streak within them. He cited the examples of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and lamented the fact that Kerala had not produced anyone like them despite thousands of graduates. Maybe my son is the future Bill Gates. I don’t want to be an obstacle in his way. So I was thinking about mortgaging the land for raising money. Lord, take care of my son and give some good sense to him. He should take care of the family after my death. Give him the courage to do it. There are a lot of loans to be repaid. House loan, educational loan, car loan...Oh, there was no need to buy that new car. It was because of Mini’s insistence. She was pestering me to sell the old Maruthi 800 and get a new one. Apparently, everyone in our parish had brand new cars and she felt ashamed to roam around in an old Maruthi. Anyway, my son has to take care of all these. I hope he does
And my daughter Elsa, she is also a fool in her own way. She is living in her own world of fantasies. Unfortunately, she’s not inherited my wife’s beauty. On the contrary, she’s got all my ugly features too. The feeling of not being beautiful enough can take a very high toll on a girl’s self-confidence. I didn’t want her to feel inferior in any aspect. So I granted all her wishes. I bought her high-end mobile phone, laptop, fashionable dresses and all. I may not have been following the right approach. I’ve been an indulgent father to her. Mini often complains that I have spoilt her by pampering her too much. She’s also a bit over-friendly with boys; and that gives me a lot of tension. The young boys of these times, all of them are hopeless wastrels. None of them can be trusted. I hope she doesn’t end up in any trouble because of them. Lord, please take care of her.
That’s all, my Lord. Pardon all of my misdeeds. I submit my soul to you. Please take care of my family. I’ve faith in you.’
He recited the prayer of ‘Hail Mary’. His eyes closed after a while. He lost his consciousness and sank into a deep slumber.
Paul saw a huge crucifix, when he opened his eyes finally.
‘Oh Jesus, even in heaven also you are on the cross!’ He thought. He tilted his head sideways. Someone was patting him. He saw an old man with a long white beard standing beside him.
“Are you Saint Peter, the gatekeeper of paradise?” Paul asked.
“Well, I’m Peter. Not the saint though. I’m ordinary Peter, the caretaker of this church.”
Paul looked around with disbelief. He saw the statue of St.George. He saw the crucifix too. It was the same church.
‘Praise the Lord. I’m not dead’. He thought.
“Hey mister, do you think church is the place to take an afternoon nap? Had I not awakened you, you would’ve slept for more hours?” The caretaker asked.
“I..I’m sorry about that. I’m leaving now. Could you tell me what time is it now?”
“5.30! I’ve a bus to catch at 5.45” He rushed to his office to take his stuff. Feeling fresh after four hours of siesta, he ran to the bus stop to catch the bus for home and to savour the sugar and spice of domestic life.