Ajeet was seated at his desk, a timer to clock his speed, a notepad to keep track of the number of moves and a rubik's cube in hand. He had been hooked to this puzzle for the past decade. Every small success was enriching, rewarding, uplifting. He had felt proud and victorious once he had learned to solve it in a matter of minutes. It had taken him months to learn and master this technique. Once he had grown confident, he challenged anyone he could from family and friends to neighbors. Ever the small-time, local champion, he was content furthering his own record by a few seconds once in a way.
With determination and ceaseless effort he had made it to the local tournaments. Now he had to go beyond to the national rounds. He knew he had it in him. His fantastically high-paying job, which he could not afford to neglect and the cube, occupied most of his life and time. He had not taken the simple way out by learning the solutions provided by top cubers. He was aware that besides fingers that moved like whirlwind, knowledge of logarithms was essential. It was really quite simple when stacked against the intricacies of relationships within the family. If only he could smoothen out the rough edges of family life! He paid a silent tribute to his father who till recently had kept the home and family functioning perfectly. No longer. First the plaster and now the bricks of their life were beginning to come unstuck with the gradually tightening grip of Alzheimer's on him.
Most of the time he was difficult to manage with his mental faculties increasingly on a downward curve. An uncomprehending, timid infant peered out from his eyes.
From bathing, feeding and baby-sitting to toilet retraining, he needed a twenty-four hour caretaker. Left unmonitored he would run amok. Things used to go missing, particularly from the kitchen and the refrigerator. Emptied cartons and bottles, spilled liquids, greasy stains on curtains and sofas, half-eaten food under the pillow, crumb filled wrappers in the cupboards and soiled clothes drove them all up the wall. He would walk out of the house in a state of undress, causing great embarrassment to family and neighbors. Only his wife had an astonishingly undiminished store of patience, courage and unconditional love to dip into. He waddled around behind her like a duckling after a mother figure. It was pathetically amusing to hear him address her as aunty. With her close by he was docile but resorted to violence at times, purely in self-defense, as he dreaded everyone else.
Ajeet and Vinita had stopped socializing; forget holidays, evenings out with their child had dwindled to nil. His mother and wife had never got along well, but now, their relationship was at its worst. Vinita was always fuming and his mother perpetually complaining and nagging. Vinita had a tinder box temper, and only his father knew how to douse the flames. He had dubbed her a martinet, with her penchant for forcing insipid health food on the whole family. Now she was getting her own back. She called him a mad man. She didn't let her son bond with his grandparents, did not allow them in her room and refused to eat at the same table. Ajeet had reason to suspect that she also beat and threatened his father often. Once he had come home from work, to find him tethered to his bed, whimpering, alone. A sickening stench of urine filled the room. His mother had gone to the doctor's saying she would be back in an hour. She had not returned after the hour was up, so Vinita locked the house and left.
What was he to do? Being an only child there was but one option open to him. No relatives, no institute, no old age homes were ready to accept such unmanageable patients, still how could he throw them out? Nor was he ready to lose Vinita and his son. No. They would all have to pull along as best they could.
Diwali was a few months away. Vinita straddled a chair, wistfully leafing through a home décor magazine.
'Ajeet, we can easily afford a beautiful home. Why don't you look at these pictures? Some of the themes are great and we could select one to suit our taste. We could even mix and match to give it an individual touch.' Ajeet sighed.
'Sweetheart, I would love to fulfill all your wishes, but don't you think it will be meaningless to do up the house right now?'
'But Diwali is not far away and this year I want to bring it in with a bang,' she sulked.
'I understand, my love, but don't you realize we cannot yet?'
Vinita looked up at him. 'Oh, yeah. Not till that mad man is around. Why did we have to get stuck with this?' She hurled down the magazine and left the room in a huff. Ajeet sat feeling helpless.
One Saturday evening, Vinita asked him if he would stay at home to look after his father. She had left their child at her friend's and was taking her mother-in-law to visit her cousin in hospital.
'Later I might take her out to dinner. She needs some entertainment too. You won't have to do anything for him. Just look in on him every once in a while. I'll lock the door to his room from the outside, so he'll stay away from mischief.'
Ajeet was surprised but did not show it. She was whimsical. 'That's very sweet of you. Go without a worry. And there is no need to rush back. Take your time, the two of you.'
Drawing a long, slow sip from his glass he looked at the cube on his table, this time through the clear, gold liquid. It looked as discolored and unsolvable as the muddled situation at home. Moving the glass away he again delighted in the straight lines and uniform colors of the solved cube. Soon he would jumble it and put it back together. It was easy, but he needed to speed it up with as few moves as he could master. Deeply engrossed in the cube, he was unaware of the time and had forgotten his father. A heavy thud in his father's room made him sprint there.
His father lay sprawled on the floor gasping, choking, and flailing weakly. A dark stain ran down from his mouth onto his clothes. Ajeet looked around the room. An uncorked, freshly emptied bottle of pesticide under the bed told him everything. He disposed off the bottle quietly. With slow deliberation he picked up his now silent father, washed and changed him, lifted him on to the bed and tenderly bade him farewell. 'Rest in peace, father. And forgive Vinita.' He felt sad, very sad. What could he do?
Then he called his doctor and informed his mother and wife. The doctor certified death due to old age.
After the tenth day ceremony his mother decided to go on a pilgrimage with a group of senior citizens. Ajeet made all the arrangements and three weeks later saw her off at the station. She went stoically, a sandalwood dot on her forehead, devoutly clutching her rosary and booklet of mantras.
Vinita was all bubbly that evening. After a great dinner, she put her son to sleep. They made love to the strains of romantic music and later sat entwined in each others arms, fulfilled, in the semi-darkness.
'Darling, I couldn't believe you had it in you,' purred Vinita.
'Isn't our son proof enough of my manhood?' asked Ajeet with mock hurt.
'No, silly.' She punched him. 'If it is not the cube it is sex on your mind. I was talking about the day dad died. I had seen the bottle of pesticide in the dustbin, and noticed that for the first time you had washed his clothes after changing him. Good thinking. And a well executed plan.'
'How could I let my lovely wife go to jail? I did it for you.'
Vinita shot up like someone had put live coals under her.
'What are you talking about? I didn't do it. You did.'
'Are you out of your mind?'
They looked wide-eyed at each other as incredible truth dawned and in shock they whispered,
'Oh God, Mother!'