All rushed to Salem. At least, the sons did to see their ailing mother. Suddenly, out of nowhere a kind of unity had sprung up in the family induced by the fear of losing the only thread that was holding them together. The heart attack and the subsequent hospitalization of their mother had made everyone dead scared.
In the flurry of activity, of visits to home and hospital, of fear and regret, everybody forgot one person who was in reality the most affected by this sudden development – Sashidhar, the eldest of the children, born to his mother when she was very much a girl herself. He stood outside the ICU room, the fingers of his right hand constantly rubbing the lines on his forehead at regular intervals. His siblings and other relatives walked past him resenting his presence. He, the eldest one had always been the quiet kind. The others often mistook this trait for arrogance. Life had it’s own way of shaping a person’s personality. An unwanted aborted stint in the army had left Sashidhar quite shaken by events early in life. His deceased father’s high expectations of him as the eldest son had resulted in the trauma that faded over the years but still lay lodged in the deep recesses of his mind.
Consequently, he became a quiet retrospective person closeting himself from the world and the games that society played to survive. He kept his conflicts to himself. Only one person in the whole wide world understood him and that was Saraswathi, his mother. With only eighteen years separating them he was more close to her than her other children who were born much later, when she had matured both physically and mentally. No wonder they all ignored him at times. He seemed an oldie, more of a father figure to his siblings than a brother.
Saraswathi had two other sons, Shankar and Suresh. Even at the age of sixty nine Saraswathi was comfortable visiting her sons in different cities as it gave her a change from her otherwise monotonous life. That she went wherever and whenever she was needed did not strike her as being made use of. She delighted in the aspect of meeting people and keeping in touch with her relatives.
And now, Saraswathi was sick. And Sashidhar, in whose house she had been living for the past few months had not seen it coming.
‘Why did I not recognize the symptoms?’ he kept asking himself again and again.
“Only a gastric problem” he had told his mother as he left for work that morning.
“Take the Anta acid tablet and you will be just fine,” he had advised her when she had complained of a slight pain near the chest a day ago.
The next day, she had to be admitted after her doctor son Suresh had taken her for one of her regular checkups in the hospital that he worked in.
‘It is all my fault,’ Sashidhar told himself as if echoing Suresh’s thoughts.
‘If only she had stayed on in Chennai, she would have been fine,’ he thought and this time he seemed to be echoing the thoughts of Shankar.
‘But, what was I to do when Ma had wanted to stay with me? Could I have rudely refused her!’ he thought again.
The permanent shift from Shankar’s place in Chennai to Salem where Sashidhar lived had not been easy. Firstly, Shankar had been used to having his mother around for so many years that even imagining his home without her seemed just not possible. Secondly, like all mothers she could be trusted for any unexpected situation. And thirdly, since both he and his wife were working, his mother’s presence at home served as a security blanket for his children who came home tired and hungry every day after school. It was his mother who fed them and helped them tidy up.
‘I suppose a mother just cannot be replaced,’ he thought, ‘even by a wife!’
He had even asked his mother whether she was unhappy living with him and his family.
“Nothing like that Shankar. I am quite comfortable here. But, you should not fret. You have had the best years of my life. Don’t your other brothers need me too?”
“But Ma, I have never stopped you from visiting and staying with them every now and them!”
“You haven’t. But, I am not talking about holiday visits. I have grown old now. I do not know how much longer I will live and….”
“Ma, don’t say that,” Shankar interrupted.
“Just listen to me Shankar,” Saraswathi gesticulated impatiently. “With God’s grace both you and Suresh are well settled in life with good jobs and affectionate families. But there is one person who has no such emotional security to fall back upon.”
“Oh! You are referring to Sashi Anna. If that is the case then, we can ask him to come to Chennai.”
“Come to Chennai and do what? Will you get him a job at his age?”
“But, why does he have to work now? I am earning well enough Ma.”
“You have mentioned this to me. Never say this again,”
reprimanded Saraswathi. “Don’t you know how self respecting your brother is?
Had you been in his position would you have agreed to leave your job in Salem and live on what your younger brother earned? Tell me!” Sarawathi demanded.
That did it. There was nothing else that Shankar could say more.
Suresh who was stationed in Salem too had initially wanted his mother to live with him. But, his wife was dead against the idea.
“No means no” she had told Suresh. “I am happy as I am now. If your mother comes then I will have more work on my hands.”
Nothing like that,” Suresh had argued. “She will help you in the kitchen. In fact, she might even teach you how to cook some of her tasty meals, something you just don’t seem to know after so many years of being married!”
“That’s the main reason why I don’t want her here. You will go on complimenting her qualities humiliating me in the process. I don’t want all that tension.”
Exhausted by all his attempts to convince his obstinate wife to be a little adjusting and practical, Suresh gave up.
Saraswathi too was particularly specific about living with her eldest son.
She had told them all, “You have families to take care of you. My Sashidhar is alone. I need to be with him.”
In the hospital ward, Sashidhar was feeling sick, his guilt eating him piece by piece. Days passed into weeks. Every day after work, he would come to the hospital, see his mother and return to an empty house. Only a few months and Ma had made her presence felt so much in his life and home. It was not that he had not missed her all the years she tended to her other children and their respective families. He had understood her responsibilities. But, her absence now in his home was killing him! Afraid of losing the only unconditional attachment he possessed in his life, he was feeling miserable. His brothers’ insensitive behaviour did not make life easier. Never having been close to him gave them more reasons to judge him responsible for their mother’s ill health.
Slowly, Saraswathi recovered. She came back home. To Sashidhar’s house. One evening, Sashidhar made her favourite cup of ginger tea for her. They talked into the night of old times, of times when she used to protect him when his father used to display his frustrations on Sashidhar and beat him. They recollected the past; of all the good times the family had shared, of the movies the whole family used to go together once a month as a ritual thirty years ago. Flashbacking into the past and talking about the old days gave Sashidhar a kind of peace he had not experienced for years.
That night, Suresh called up wanting to speak to Saraswathi. Sarawathi took the receiver. As she listened to Suresh speak her expression changed to death pale.
‘I hope you are okay now Ma. It is that son of yours who did it all” Suresh screamed angrily into the phone. “Had I not come to see you then, God only knows what would have happened! He thinks he knows everything. What right has he to play with your life?
What has he done for you anyway?”
“Enough Suresh,” Saraswathi interrupted indignantly. “What you said today never say again.”
“NO. You asked me what he has done for me? He has taken care of my sons when they were helpless after their father died. That is what he has done for me. Have you done even a little of that? My heart was stressed when you took me to the hospital. It has broken now.”
Saying this Sarawathi put the receiver down with sadness and tears.
The next day being a Monday, everybody was getting back on the road of daily living. Shankar had gone back to Chennai. Suresh was busy again with his hospital work. Every family member went about their work with a sense of pride at having done their bit for their ailing mother. Back to their respective jobs, a flurry of calls suddenly made them grapple for that old thread again.
That week the family attended two funerals. Saraswathi’s and Sashidhar’s! One had passed away because of a broken heart and the other of a heart healed. One had passed away in despair and the other in peace. Only Suresh and Saraswathi knew what had ripped the bond that had held everyone together for so many years. The accuser had become the accused!