It was quite dark even after daybreak. The sky looked threatening – as if it was going to engulf all land. For the previous six hours it had been raining. Dr Shyam Bannerji was in bed reading by the tube-light a book of poems by Yeats.
“It’s past nine, don’t you go to your clinic?” Shyam suddenly asked Savitri, twirling the kurta button on his chest.
It transported him looking at Savitri like that, lost in her own thoughts.
“Why didn’t you marry?” She asked diffidently, making up her mind after a bit of deliberation.
It was that sensibility in her that showed her to Shyam as an extra-ordinary human being. However close he went to her, however close they have been … a question she could have asked in their initial meetings …she’d asked after a couple of years. So it took her two long years to make bold to ask that question. That was the reason why for the not very young, forty-year old, Shyam there was such an adolescent admiration for her. That should be the adoration of a sixteen years old for a deity after his own heart.
However close they came she’d always maintain that distance, that was Savitri.
Not having enough courage to look into her eyes, still twirling the button without looking at it, by way of an answer he mumbled: “Not finding anyone like you.”
Both were silent for a while.
Suddenly Shyam asked a shade louder, this time: “Why haven’t you gone to your clinic?”
“Ssh! You’d wake up Bobby. This weather always makes me lazy.”
“But your patients?”
“They can wait.”
“Perhaps I’m corrupting you. Like some tea?”
“I’d make it,” Savitri was about to get up.
“You don’t. Making tea and washing the dirty dishes, you are not meant for such earthly things. I don’t have any right to make such demands on your time.”
“But that time you can use to read or ruminate on another poem, a word or an expression. Not for making stupid tea!”
“You be here,” Shyam said decisively and walked into the kitchen.
For Doctor Savitri Bannerji running into Shyam was quite unexpected.
Shyam returned from college in the afternoon for he had a sudden stomachache. After coming home it got worse. Suneeta, Shyam’s student, rushed to him after knowing that he had been unwell. By that time it was past four and Shyam was twisting with pain.
Suneeta offered to fetch a doctor but Shyam stalled her. But she went downstairs to the landlord to seek help. A girl in her late teens told her that a doctor had been living four houses away. Suneeta lost no time. She rushed out and found the sign Savitri Bannerji wondering how she had missed the board though she had been using that way for months. She walked straight into the doctor’s chamber: Please excuse me, Doctor. Dr. Shyam is in great pain. Won’t you please come?” she said all in a great hurry.
“Where is he?”
“In his flat, in this very street.”
“I never saw any sign or name plate. How long has he been practicing?”
“He’s a professor in our college, not a medical practitioner, and then he always maintains a low profile.”
The Doctor climbed the stairs and the young woman followed her with the doctor’s bag. The doctor took in the scene rapidly. There was a sofa set in the drawing room and some papers on a low table. In the inner room there was a bed and clothes hanging down on a line fixed to the wall. The patient was groaning in pain.
“Sir lives alone and things are just like this always,” Suneeta said noticing that the doctor was observant.
“That’s all right.”
“Sir was telling me that the pain is in McBurney’s Point.”
“Let me see…”
“Ah! I think it is appendicitis…”
“Let me see. How’s the pain now?”
“ I think it has come down. I’m able to speak… It’s like joy in one’s life. Comes and goes. There’s no knowing when it comes, or goes.”
“Sir!” Suneeta looking at the Doctor was about to say something.
“I apologize. Hm. The pain again. Shssss… Here… At this point.”
“Don’t worry! Let me take a look. Turn you head to that side…yes, like that!”
The Doctor carried on her examination and after a couple of minutes told Suneeta: “It’s not appendicitis. I’ll write out a prescription.”
Suneeta produced a writing pad and stood staring at it.
“Get me this injection first, it’s in my clinic and the sister would give it to you.” The doctor said to Suneeta. At this point the landlord’s daughter, who knew the doctor well, made her appearance on the scene..
She took out a tablet from her kit bag and asked the patient to swallow it with a little water.
“How long has he been living here?”
“For the last two months. He is a Reader in Osmania University.”
After Suneeta brought the vial, while loading the syringe she asked Suneeta: “Does he have anybody, a relation or a close friend in the city?”
“I don’t think he has. But he is a good man. All of us like him.”
“All right. I’d come again while going home in the night.”
“I’d stay here till then and take him home with me,” Suneeta said looking at her Sir with concern.
“I leave it to you but it is not a serious thing.”
-This was how they met.
After some days, the sister brought Savitri a card and brought in Shyam a moment later into her room.
“You must think that I’m ungrateful. On that day Suneeta took me away to her place.”
“You speak Telugu very well!”
“I’m an Andhra. I retain my speech, no matter what I do or how. They named me Bannerjee for they liked it.”
“So you are Telugu!”
“I know you are a Telugu too.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I know asking questions. Suneeta told me that the landlord’s daughter told her. Your fee?”
She scribbled out a sum on her pad. Shyam was wonder struck: the sum was fifty paise. He looked into her face. There was no vermilion mark on the forehead. On the letter pad were printed elegantly - Dr. Savitri Bannerjee M.D.
“Your bill – only fifty paisa?”
“I charge only actual expenses in emergencies. You thought it was one. The tablet cost half a rupee and the injection was only distilled water,” Savitri said, smiling. There was no joy in that, no resignation, no enthusiasm and nothing.
“Suneeta is a silly kid. In fact so am I. I’m sorry!”
“Mummy! Who’s this?”
Shyam turned and saw a boy of five. He was chubby and cute.
“Oh! You‘ve come back so early! This is Shyam Bannerjee.”
She turned in her swivel chair turning her back to the man and the boy.
“Why did you keep away for so long… At school everybody asks me to show my dad. Dads come to school to drop the kids when moms are busy at home. Why did you go away?”
The boy nestled into him.
“Sorry, little one!”
“Let’s go home,” he pulled Shyam’s hand.
Shyam walked out behind the boy without looking back.
“We cannot get what we want, sometimes. Those we swear not to desert and that which we hold dearest to heart we cannot keep either! It is not our will, not our wish or desire to have things the way we like!” Savitri heaved out a long sigh.
“You speak like a philosopher!” Lavanya said looking at Shyam with a smile.
“If you deign to call me a philosopher for this much, there’d many whom you have to accept as metaphysicians.”
“But there is God. There is some correlation between what we do and what we get in terms of joy and grief. For example…”
“I’ve no use for examples. I don’t say there is no God either. Shyam says God’s a joker. The joker jumps only to make us laugh. He doesn’t laugh. Shyam says we should learn to chuckle when we slip on a banana skin.”
“Right then, I just wanted to know how you feel about this. There’s no god. There is no correlation between your deeds and what happens to you,” Lavanya threw down the gauntlet. “To discuss god is like groping in the dark. I ‘d bet anything, any amount. Don’t be afraid that I’d ask you to show me God. You cannot show something non-existent.”
You bet because I didn’t challenge that he is. Lavanya, though it’s impossible to show, it’s quite possible to see god, provided you concentrate and try rigorously enough. What do you say, Shyam?” Savitri asked turning to him.
“I remember the words of a thinker. ‘The best thing is not to bet’.
“That’s escapism,” Lavanya’s face became livid.
“I’m not an escapist. All I can say is that it’s not possible to know anything positive, conclusively. If, as Savitri says he is, he alone must enable one to see.”
“Are you afraid of god?” Asked Lavanya.
“I never did anything that’d offend him.”
“I guess from what you said that you are afraid of him though you don’t have any faith in him. To prove that there is no God, what more proof is necessary than our Savitri here? She loved that Bannerjee and against her parents’ wishes got married to him. Just in a trice he was gone; burnt to cinders in a plane crash. To undergo this punishment what sin did he commit? God, if there is one, is not a joker as you said, but a villain. If anybody is totally happy he fells it like a sty in the eye. He is a sadist.”
“Let it be so. It’s my misfortune. You came after all these years. Be happy!”
“Savitri, I’m a human being. You’ve done nothing to earn this,” Lavanya said growing emotional.
“What is the use of linking an accident or what was preordained to rail at god? Now look at me, you can examine my heart. I am not emotional. See how my heart responds to this.”
“Oh yes.” Lavanya took her stethoscope.
“How long do you need?” Shyam said.
“A minute or less. Remove your shirt!”
“One minute up!” Savitri said looking at her watch.
“What happened?’ Savitri asked.
“Now you examine your friend and examine yourself. I left a poem midway and I must push off,” said Shyam reaching for his shirt.
After he had left Savitri asked her friend: “You look pale. What’s the matter?”
“We’d talk about this later.” She said thoughtfully.
“I’m getting jittery, tell me now!”
“I’m feeling just the same. Are you in love with Shyam?
“Eversince Bobby saw him he thinks that he’s his father.”
“I can understand,” said Lavanya with a sigh.
“Shyam, just in play …I don’t know how to tell you …” Savitri was just searching for words.
“Is it a professional challenge?” Shyam replied smiling.
“When there is personal involvement, it can’t be helped.”
“I can take it whatever it is. I may be shocked only when what you tell me is not already known to me. “
“Your heart! Lavanya tells me it’s best operated on now. She is a renowned cardiologist. She is prepared to take all of us with her to New York. “
“You talk all in one breath. Don’t worry, I know what my heart has been. But I learnt to ignore it being merry and light-hearted. Doctors get anxious the moment they diagnose.”
“You brought light into my life: more than that into my son’s heart. Please don’t let me down. Let’s all go.” Savitri looked anxiously into Shyam’s eyes.
“Savitri, you are a doctor!”
“Why do you always pull my leg! Yes, I’m a doctor but, before that, a human being too. I lost everything and thought that it was all over but the joker you speak of made you make your appearance. Now I don’t want to lose you, at any cost.”
“It’s not that I don’t know how you feel. In any life it would never be all Spring all along. That joker threw me into the Spring I never expected. He is funny if deceitful. Perhaps he’d pull me away from you. I’m sorry I made that stupid challenge, if only to prove my serenity. I never knew she’d examine me there and then.
“Shyam, my tributes to your strong will!”
“Wait, Savitri. If a decision is forced, the consequences may not be pleasant., if what ensues were to be darkness and despair. Suneeta and I have been reading Dante. I’m a slow reader. Suneeta ia already in Paradiso… I’m still wading through Purgatorio. Thank god we are both out of Inferno.”
“I don’t know all that. Stop joking. Please consent for surgery.”
“You should be prepared to …”
“Can’t you be serious for a little change? Don’t you like anything except humour?”
“I stay alive and human only because of that. This is not a joke. I’m dead serious. Why do you love me so much? Do I deserve it?”
“I love you for myself, I adore you. After my husband’s death my heart was totally dead. But the one you say is a joker can do many things that would be incredible.”
“All right! I’m not afraid of death. It’s true I have been dreading to stay alive for some years. On one condition though.”
“You know I’d be ready for any conditions you impose.”
“I don’t have that kind of callous courage, I’m a coward.”
“Well then, what are your conditions?”
“Do you consent to marry me within a month of the surgery?”
“Why not now?”
“I don’t trust the joker. I don’t have enough courage.”
“I don’t know about God or the joker but Lavanya is not a joker. Listening to such would give conviction even to hardcore unbelievers in medical skills.”
“I don’t have in God the faith I have in man. But I can’t deny the fact that till I go into the theatre you wouldn’t be happy. I’m not afraid of losing you, but afraid you may be exposed to injustice. I wish I had the power to wipe your tears. I don’t have a right to drive away your peace. We’d run away at least from the sly insinuations of people around for some months.”
“Do you pay attention to such? They don’t seem to have some respect even for our age.”
“Those who demand character in doctors and teachers never doubt politicians and business men.”
“I am a mother too!”
“We live being truthful to ourselves. It is no mean thing, to be true to one’s self.” Shyam was twirling the button again.
“You speak like a writer.”
“I’m sharpening my thought! If you are with me, my thoughts acquire the shape of letters. That day when I was in pain…”
“It’s nothing serious but I can imagine the pain.”
He took her hand into his and said: “Aren’t you afraid of losing me?”
“No. I can live without practice, within my limited means.”
“Don’t do that. I’m afraid of poverty. It could be demeaning. “
“I found joy serving the poor.”
“You haven’t experienced poverty as I did. I had a dreadful past: an angel of a lady came to my rescue. Perhaps I was fourteen then. From the moment she took me under her wing things came right for me.”
“Who’s that lady?”
“She was just ten years older than I was at that time. I don’t know what made her so generous. But she’s no more. Every one says that it’s inescapable, the bitterness in life. But I did understand that, learnt to accept it as part of reality, but …”
“I want to be forever yours. You wouldn’t let me down.”
“Only for that reason…”
“You don’t seem to trust doctors.”
“I’m getting along all these years making fools of doctors, Savitri.”
“You think so.”
“No, it’s not that. They told me one after another that I have the heart disease, which would just take me away any day. But that woman, who came to my rescue, died first. What a bitter joke! I know you’d do anything for me. Please tell your friend to leave me to myself.”
“That’s impossible, Shyam. She’d kill me. She’d say that I am deliberately losing the amrit kalash that could be mine.”
“True, I don’t have faith in doctors. But you are a woman. It is because of woman that light emerges. It is only because of her that there is peace and joy in life. You are a goddess. Please send her away without hurting her.”
“I can’t disagree and hurt her.”
Shyam fell silent and after a while said; “All right, tell her I’m ready. I am ready to start even tomorrow.”
“That’s enough. I know you have such concern for me. Sweet Shyam! I adore you!”
-“Sorry!” Lavanya came in and the two were abashed.
“I’m really jealous of you. You seem to be still sixteen and that’s really great!” She exclaimed.
“Love is wonderful!” said Shyam in the vein of starting a discourse.
For Shyam the joy in Lavanya’s eyes and he enthusiasm in her speech appeared hollow. The two doctors appeared to be alone in their own world of joy.
At the airport just a little before checking in Lavanya said: “Shyam! This is March. I’d keep everything ready by June. You should come to stay for four months. I’d look after the baby!”
“You are wonderful,” Shyam said squeezing her hand.
Lavanya called and the little fellow hugged her.
-In the rear seat kneeling on his forelegs from the glass Bobby was looking out. Savitri was at the wheel.
“You never told me about the baby!” Shyam asked.
From the opposite side a procession with a poorn kalash was approaching. Savitri drew the car to the extreme left and stopped the engine to allow the procession to pass.
“The baby?” Shyam had to repeat.
“A beautiful lie.” Savitri said looking intently at the procession.
Shyam didn’t hear the sad sigh he had expected from her. Her speech was all joy, restrained though.
-Shyam was all eyes at the poorn kalash that appeared passing in the procession.
Original in Telegu by the Author.
Translated in English by the Author.