The storm

This is my story. All names have been changed to protect privacy. 

It was a hot Saturday morning in 2003. Shreya woke up at 7. She was never late. Since the past two years the alarm was set for six hours of sleep. She often joked that the loud alarm would even bring her back from the dead. After shutting up the pink table clock kept on her bed’s headboard shelf , she dragged herself  to her table. Rubbing her eyes to shake off the drowsiness, and stifling a yawn, she opened her planner to check how many of the planned study topics she had been successful in covering the previous day.

“Damn! Two topics of mechanics and one of physical chemistry left out. That has to be carried forward today.” She was no longer sleepy. The disappointment and anger had killed the last traces of sleep. Her big eyes were wide open as she stared at her checklist.

She quickly planned her day. Since it was a holiday she allotted 14 hours for the preparation. The pressure was on. Just 11 months later she was to appear for IIT JEE and she still had a lot to improve upon. The needed tradeoff between speed and accuracy was difficult to achieve. She was lacking in a lot of areas. She felt a little depressed thinking of her percentiles in mock tests. As the D-day was approaching, her hopes and expectations were lowering. The uncertainty can be painful at times. But she wasn’t the one who gave up easily.

“But still there is time. I will do something about all the drawbacks. I am going to clear this exam. But how I wish bhaiya came home earlier. It feels so lonely these days. Yesterday I wouldn’t have lost time had I controlled my overwhelming feeling of loneliness. It is getting a hold on me. I wasn’t feeling like doing anything! This never happens with me. I have to be stronger.”

With this positive thought she came out of her room. Her father was reading newspaper at the dining table. It was a four-seater round wooden table placed outside her room, to the left of her door.

“Good morning dad!”

“Morning honey!”

She went to the kitchen where her mother was making tea. She came from behind and wrapped her arms around her.

“Mamma!”

“Good morning sweetu!”

Shreya kissed her mother and turned to go. She could hear her complaining. “Don’t do that! I have told you so many times! First Brush your teeth, then come to me.

Shreya chuckled. She loved to tease her mom. She turned to see her mother smiling too.

She freshened up and picked up the newspaper. This was part of the daily routine. She would read aloud some of the headlines to discuss them with her parents. Since both of them supported different political parties, Shreya enjoyed seeing them debate. The debates like all others ended without a conclusion. She read the rest of the paper silently as her father got ready for office while constantly attending official calls, which as usual started hours before actual office hours started.

He finished breakfast by chewing at the time when the guy on the other end spoke. When he hung up he seemed disturbed and let out a deep sigh. What she gathered from the one sided conversation, was that some work in office was taking more time than usual to be completed. After he received this information, he called up others to see how the problem could be resolved.

“Oh dad! Don’t be so worried. Let go the tension.”

“My dear, responsibility comes bundled with tensions. You will understand when you start working”. He replied tenderly.

Now she didn’t have anything to say as there were at least 5 years before she would get a job. So instead she said “Ok. Here take your blood pressure medicine. This is the last one. Don’t forget to get more for the next month.” Of late his BP had been remaining high. Work pressure they said.

“Ok.” In no time he was ready to go.

Bye”

“Bye Dad! Have a good day!”

Shreya went to her room to start off her day as planned.

Two hours later she came out of her room to find her mother talking to neighbours of adjacent flats. Some chit-chat she thought. But then she learnt there was some problem with the water pump and there was no water in the tank. Her mother made some phone calls and an hour later, the kitchen tap let out a hiss followed by a bleak stream of water. These problems were part of the daily routine of most people. Family members not at home didn’t even come to know about them. Sometimes it was water, power or domestic help problem, sometimes  as weird as a dead rat trapped somewhere in the house. The list was endless. These were a housewife’s share of office problems.

All three of them had different things to worry about. It was life.

During her break time, she played music in the stereo kept in the drawing room. She increased the volume till the glass show case beside it started trembling. She had to turn it down a little after her mom warned her that the glass might break. She was actually hoping she could witness glass breaking due to loud music! She loved loud music. They all liked it. A few minutes of loud, ear-shattering music was very refreshing.

“Hey mom! Let’s dance”

“I can’t dance”

“Oh let’s try”

They waltzed around on a slow track for a while.

“Girls your age dance so well. I am sure you could do better”

“I don’t dance mom. But I will, in my birthday party next week. I can’t wait for that big bash!  I am so happy Akhil will be home next Sunday . It’s been so many years since the four of us celebrated any birthday together. Either Dad or Akhil is not around.”

“ Yes. That’s true. And we have been postponing our visit to Hotel Blue Emerald since long just because we want to go there as a complete family. Everyone talks about that place”

“Ooh! Am so excited”

Just then the landline phone began to ring. Shreya got up to receive it but continued talking.
“Are we going to invite anyone else or will it be just the four of us. I think……”

“Hello”

“Hello. Can I talk to aunty?”

“Yes. Just a sec”

She handed the cordless phone to her mother. Barely few seconds later, she noticed her mother’s expression change. Her face went pale and she was just staring at the wall blankly. She could see her breathe unrhythmically. Her fingers started searching for something to hold. She gripped the edge of the table tightly. Tears started rolling down even before she had spoken a word.

Shreya rushed to pick up the parallel phone.

“I hope this is not a joke” Her mother tried hard to make her voice audible even when emotions was making it difficult to talk. It could be clearly seen that too many thoughts were playing in her mind and as a result none of them found an escape.

She could hear a guy telling “No aunty. How can we joke about such a thing. But we don’t know anything. We came to know of it an hour ago. He has met with an accident and is admitted in the city hospital”.

Her mother opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t get herself to say anything. She was flooded with emotions, but none could be expressed with words. She just hung up and started crying. She went to the worship room and started praying.

Shreya could hear her mother crying loudly in the next room. Never once in her life had she seen tears in her eyes. With the sound of her cries she felt as if a dagger was being plunged into her heart repeatedly.

She hurriedly dialed her father’s number. Out of coverage area. She kept trying all his colleagues numbers she had in the phonebook. She couldn’t reach any of them. She didn’t know what to do. Also she thought if she presented this problem to her mother, she would be distracted.

“Mom, I can’t reach Dad’s number. It seems there isn’t any network coverage there. I have tried all his colleagues numbers as well.”

Her mother didn’t respond. But she knew it was important for her father to get to Chennai as soon as possible. She stopped crying and remained silent for some time. “He had a meeting today somewhere in the outskirts. Maybe there is poor coverage there. Keep trying.”

They sat at the dining table silently for a while. They had tried some more numbers.An hour had now passed and each minute wasted seemed like a lifetime. Shreya’s heart was beating faster and panic was trying to sink in. She kept shoving it away each time and tried to maintain her composure. She could see he mother was also trying to do the same.

Now she had to wait again. That was hell. When each second counts, when you wish you could run at the speed of light, at that time, if life forces you to sit idle and wait for something to happen, you feel pathetic. You know, if you don’t act right at the spur of the moment, you might lose everything you are living for.

Half an hour later she got through her father’s number and informed him what had happened.

Her father was silent and as lost as they had been. But he knew he was the one who was supposed to be strong at that time. He quietly said, “I am leaving for home right now.I will be there in an hour. I will try to get today’s air ticket to Chennai. You just take care of your mother”.

She also called Akhil’s friend at the hospital. He said that doctors were with Akhil and he would call when they gave any information. After hanging up she started to think if they could do anything. They didn’t have any relatives living nearby. All were either in the East of North of India.

She started thinking about life.None of them had been taught what to do in a situation like this. No one is prepared for such disasters. When they happen you just got to deal with it.

Four hours had passed.Her father had managed to get a ticket via Calcutta for the next morning. He was going to undertake a night long trip to reach Calcutta. Shreya was scared now. “Take care dad”

(These events happened at a time when there were very few mobile operators offering poor quality service and there was no makemytrip and low price airlines hadn’t entered the market.Accessibility was a big deal back then.)

She informed her mother about his plan. Hearing that she would have to wait until morning to hear about her son, she was further upset. She started crying. Silently this time.

Shreya knew what her mother was hoping. She wanted her father to reach Chennai right then and call her and say, “Here, talk to your son”. But they would have to wait almost 20 hours before that could happen.

Her mother asked her to inform her aunt. She did so. Her aunt asked if she should come over. But it was pretty late by then and it would really not solve any purpose. After hanging up, Shreya was quiet. Though the room was well lit, it seemed dark all around. The telephone was in the corner of the drawing room, beside the sofa where Shreya was sitting. There were beautiful nature paintings hung on the two walls forming the corner. Though Shreya was staring at one of them, she seemed everything had vanished in the darkness surrounding her. She could see nothing, feel nothing. She was numb. What had just happened? She asked herself. What? My brother has met with an accident? How is that even possible? No way! Did it really happen?

When something different from usual happens, it takes time to come to terms with it. It is hard to believe that life changed in a split second. It is hard to understand the impact of what happened. It is tough to accept the sudden changes. Sometimes you don’t have a say in what’s happening to you. It’s like someone just slaps you and says, “You are doomed. Live with this”

Shreya was shaken. She felt as if she had been standing on a railway track and just as she grounded her feet, out of nowhere a fast moving train came and hit her and crushed her. Shreya looked at her mother. She was still sitting at the dining table and crying silently. This was the most disturbing thing she had ever seen. The woman in front of her, who was in deep agony, was her mother! She could kill anyone who hurt her mother. But now, she didn’t even know whom to direct her anger at. She loved her too much and she could do nothing to make her feel better. This was the only sad reality. She felt angry at herself for being so helpless.

She went and hugged her.

“Mom, everything will be fine. It has to.”

“Why did it happen to me?”

Why? She didn’t know.

“Mom,please stop crying. Nothing bad will happen to us. We have never done anything bad to anyone.” Shreya’s voice was firm. She didn’t have to show that she was shaken too. Shreya learnt in that instant how devastating helplessness can be.

It was pretty late and neither of them wanted to sleep. The thought of having dinner didn’t cross their minds. Her mother kept glancing at the phone every 2 minutes in the hope of any news of him.

At 2am the phone rang. It was Akhil’s friend. “Aunty.. aaa…”

“What happened?”, her mother was shouting as she was terribly scared and she was shaking.

“Aunty.. Akhil….The doctors did everything. But… Aunty.. they couldn’t save Akhil.”

Her mother didn’t hear the rest of it. She collapsed on the floor.

She picked up the phone and told Akhil’s friend to call after few minutes.

She hugged her mother tightly. She could feel her tears flowing down. She was silent for some time. She couldn’t accept what she had heard. Shreya called her father and gave him the bad news. She felt bad for him.He had to face this reality at a time when he was alone,travelling in the dark to get to the airport so that he could meet his son.

Her mother cried uncontrollably. She would become silent for few minutes, but the pain was too much to remain quiet.

She talked to Akhil’s friend and took the details but didn’t pass on much to her mother.

That night went on like that. It was the longest one Shreya had ever seen in her 16 years of life.

Even when it was morning, neither of them spoke anything.The charged and fresh mornings they usually had, had vanished with her brother.

She called up her aunt and informed her.  In no time, her relatives started pouring in.

“Oh my God! What happened? How did it happen?” Shreya suddenly felt it wasn’t a good idea to have told them about it.“He was like a son to us!” Someone added after letting out some more tears.

Such a dramatic entry just added to her mother’s agony and it felt like a champagne bottle had been uncorked and all the fizz had been let out. Her mother who seemed a little better in the morning was crying uncontrollably.

“I might kill them! Why do these people have to come? Here my mother is trying to get a grip over herself, she is trying not to cry and these morons! Ha! Just to show their false concerns. It is as if the more they make mom cry, the more successful they will be in their acts of pretense.”Shreya was hoping her thoughts didn’t reflect in her behavior. Shreya was standing at the door of her room, partly hidden by the curtain as she witnessed the drama going on in the drawing room. When her aunt saw her, she came to her and whispered, “Take care of your mother. Be strong.”

“There you go! Don’t say another word or I might forget my manners.” She thought as she silently nodded.

“God! She is my mother. I know how to take care of her and definitely I will do a better job than you just did.” Her thoughts were betraying her expressions.

“And you study well dear. Don’t let all this distract you”

“Yes. It won’t”

Her dad called on reaching Chennai.He confirmed the news and said he would be coming home the next day.The relatives started leaving slowly. They had a lot of advice to give, before they finally did. Shreya was relieved. Most often people don’t know when to keep their mouth shut. It’s really an art to know when to keep quiet.

Her father came home and took leave from work for few days. But their life had changed. It was all upside down.Nothing would change in few days.

Days changed to weeks. Nothing changed. Occasionally people would come, repeat the same drama and leave. Her mom was getting no better. She prayed and tried to keep her cool. But it was her son!. The one person a mother lives for. She gives everything she has to raise a child and making her undergo this pain should be a crime. But sadly there is no court where you can lodge a case against it.  There was no criminal. A mother was facing the side-effects of her love for her children. The only wrong-doer in such cases is God.

It was hard for her mother to control emotions in such situations. She couldn’t accept what had happened.

“Why me? You don’t even know what pains I have undergone to raise both of you and I am subjected to such misery for no reason.How can God be so ruthless? He shouldn’t be doing this. ”

A few months had now passed. Shreya went to tuitions and school as usual. She tried to concentrate hard on what was being taught.

People who came to visit them would tell her,” Now you have gotto do even better in studies. You have to give happiness to your parents.”

Shreya could hear and understand them. But she couldn’t focus on studies. She had no desire to. Every time she came out of her room, she found her mother’s moist eyes and she didn’t feel like leaving her side. She knew she just had to spend most of her time with her mother. She talked to her about school, about all her friends. One smile that she saw on her mother’s face was enough for her. That smile was her new target of the day.

The house remained silent for many months. No music, no laughter, no discussions.

When we are happy, we like to treat our senses. We watch movies, eat good food, listen to good music etc. But what matters most is the people. You need your loved ones to celebrate any occasion and that’s why festivals had become a burden.

Shreya looked out of her window and saw three kids bursting crackers. There was a little girl who got scared by the high decibel crackers her brothers were bursting and ran away inside to complain to her mother. The guys were trying some innovations by tying a strip of crackers to a dog’s tail. As the crackers started bursting the dog started barking and running in circles. Those boys were ecstatic. Disgusting! Thought Shreya  as she drew the curtains together. These were the moments when remembering Akhil became inevitable. She remembered the excitement with which they would spread out the crackers under the sun when they were kids. Shreya would keep checking if her fuljhadi was getting proper sunlight and kept adjusting them according to the position of the sun and just as a favour to her brother, she would adjust his stuff too. Her dad would find her an arm length stick. Then when it was sufficiently dark and she had finished helping her mother light the diyas, both of them would bring out their treasures. She would tie her fuljharis to the stick, light them and make figures in the air. Her favourite was figure 8. Akhil would find unique places to burst his crackers and rockets. Once he kept a cracker under a coconut shell and then started jumping with joy to see the shell fly. Memories of their childhood tormented her. Memories of the good times brought smile and tears at the same time.

Their neighbours came to invite them for Diwali celebrations.

“Please come. Maybe you will feel better”

“No. I really don’t feel like.”

Diwali soon changed to New Years eve. For them, both days were the same because both were meant for celebrations; celebrations that were no longer part of their life.

That one day had swept past their lives like a storm. But now it was time to bring back their lives to normal and pick up the pieces of debris to see how they could be fixed. Also, Shreya had to appear for the most important exam of her life. Her parents tried to shift their focus on her.

“Which forms have you filled?”

“How are your scores in mock tests”?

“Don’t let all this affect you. You have always been our strong daughter”

Shreya could hear them. She pretended to be strong and indifferent to what was going on around her. Their world had fallen apart. But no one could see the damage it had done. It was more of an internal matter, not evident on the exterior .Her parents had never seen her upset or even a drop of water in her eyes. She would hold on all day. At night when she went to bed, she would let her emotions free. She would hold on to the sides of her bed to stop her cries from being audible. At most times she would kick the air before her and moan like a person who has his hands and legs chained to the bed. She would cry because she couldn’t do anything to change circumstances; because she couldn’t take it anymore. She was lonely and scared. Almost every day she would fall asleep when her eyes became swollen due to tears and they would close automatically. She was getting paranoid about small things. Each time her dad went out of town, she would just check her watch, wait for his call and pray for his safety. She was now scared of losing him.

When just two months remained for her exams, Shreya forced herself to focus. Though she was depressed, she knew she had to study and whether she wanted or not, she would have to appear for the exams. So with whatever power her desire to excel in exams could give her, she studied and appeared for her Board and engineering entrance exams.

Exams were over, and so was a year since everything happened. Now Shreya was getting jerky and irritated. All control and discipline was giving way. People really have no control over what trauma can do to them. Though Shreya’s mother managed the house,   motivated Shreya to study and seemed to be coping with life, on the inside things were getting nasty. She remained anxious always, couldn’t sleep at night and had developed high blood pressure problems. She was given anti-depressants and sleeping pills. In a year she looked much older. Worry can do more harm to health than anything else. It drains all energy, steals the desire to stay good and sucks the life out of a person. It hampers your intellectual ability and you become a frail reflection of your former self. The worst part is that all this happens so slowly that by the time you notice the changes, it is too late.

They were all just holding on to life. It was just time that had moved on. Life for them was frozen at that day in 2003. They were just breathing to stay alive. It was still difficult to fully accept what had happened. It didn’t matter to anyone if their lives was paused at a day of yester year. Even if they couldn’t, they had to accept that the calendar pages had turned and it would continue to do so. The problem was now at their end. They had to move on.

It has been 10 years since everything happened. Life has moved on. I have finished my graduation, got a job and married the man I loved. On the outside life is normal, but from within I am badly broken. I still remember everything that happened that day in minute detail.But I have left out some of them since it is still not possible to talk about them.

Though I am no longer that scared and depressed, there are days when the pain comes back.And in those moments I feel completely weak and hopeless.  I have become so soft from within that I start crying even when I see someone lose a dear one in a movie. I remember my brother everyday and think of the good times. I also have dreams of the four of us having a good time as any other normal family.

Life can never be the same again. It is like a sine curve. There are days, when I am the strong girl I always knew myself to be and there I times when I can’t get a grip over myself. The only effect of the 10 long years is that the frequency of the bouts of depression has decreased. My mother and I have the same fun we used to have before everything happened.But all the happened has taken a toll on her health. That one day changed our lives completely. 

Tears change to smiles,but the pain always remains.