October 23, 2020
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'Come Home Adit'

Extracts from Shashi Deshpande's book Small Remedies, shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award

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'Come Home Adit'
Small Remedies
By Shashi Deshpande
Penguin Rs 250: Pages 324

Hari's arm, set in plaster and supported by a sling, proclaims his handicap, which he tries to play down. 'I'm all right,' he says to me. 'Nothing to worry.'

Nevertheless, he is irritable, more I imagine because of the dependence, the inability to do things for himself than because of any residual pain. I admire Lata for the way she deals with him and the situation. I'd have thought she would get into a flap, but she refrains from fussing and leaves him, for the greater part, to manage himself, though clearly it calls for an effort on her part. She even goes back to work the day after he comes home from the hospital. I can see she's reluctant to go, but she conceals it from him, only her fervent 'Thank God you're here, Kaku' revealing it.

But there's little I can do for him. In fact, there's nothing that he will allow me to do. I tell him about Leela's panacea for any pain or illness -- a glass of Horlicks. 'I don't know where she got the idea, but you know how these things are sometimes, it got fixed in her mind: a glass of Horlicks will make you well. When she brought it to you, you knew she was really worried about you.'

Hari laughs. 'I'm okay. No Horlicks for me. If there's something I'd like, it's a cigarette. I'd give anything for a smoke at this moment.'

It's three years now since he gave up smoking, he tells me, but even now, at certain times, at certain moments, the longing for a smoke returns, the smell haunts him; like a phantom it accompanies him wherever it goes.

'Just one, I tell myself, but I know it won't stop at one. So l resist.'

He's more relaxed after this confession and so am I, now that I know his irritation is not connected to pain, but to this itch to smoke. We speak of the accident for the first time since it happened.

'At first it seemed to me that they were coming for you,' he says.

We wonder then whether they thought I was Hasina. I was wearing a salwar kameez that day, perhaps it was this that misguided them?

'But Hasina wears saris!'

'Oh well, you know the stereotypes we live with. She's a Muslim, therefore she would be wearing a salwar kameez.' And then he asks me, hesitantly, did he faint? He has a vague memory of a blackout . . .

'Yes, you did.'

'It must have scared you.'

I confess to him my shame that I could not help him, that I could not even look at the bone sticking out of his sleeve.

You kept telling me to push it back inside . . .'

'I know. The doctor tells me I said the same thing to him I had a strange feeling that the bone was not part of me, that once it disappeared from view, I would be fine.'

We're now interrupted by a visitor. There has been a constant stream of visitors for Hari since the news of the attack on him spread. The threat, that Hasina would not be allowed to sing in the temple, is now openly known. The police have tried to persuade Ravi to change the programme, but he is adamant. No, he will not cancel the programme, he will not get someone else instead of Hasina, he will not convert a public performance into a small closed-room one. It's going to be like it always was, he insists.

It's Hasina who has been unhappy at the thought of causing trouble, she's been dithering. She's here now to speak to Hari, to apologize to him, she says.

'What for?'

The parrot, which had set up a squawking when Hasina entered, suddenly falls silent.

'It's because of me that you were attacked. Those blows were meant for me. They must have thought Madhu was me.'

I find it hard to extract a single thread from the tangled skein of memories of that day. The only clear memory that comes to me is that of anger -- anger at being forced to crouch on the ground, at the ignominy of my position, down there among all those trampling feet. But there's nothing that tells me I was the focus, the target of the attack. In fact, they pushed me aside -- or was it Hari who did that? He can't remember, either.

'But what does it matter now? It's over. And in no way are you responsible for what happened.'

'I've told Patil saheb I'm not going to sing.'

'And he's accepted your decision?'

'N-n-o. But once he understands that I'm not going to change my mind, I think he will . . .'

Hari tells her of Lata's theory that this is the work of outsiders, he tells her of Lata's faith in Bhavanipur. He agrees with her, he says. This is the work of politicians who're trying to extract some advantage for themselves out of this. The elections are in a few months . . .

'What does it matter who's behind these things? The results are the same. I'm scared, Haribhai. My parents live in Bombay, my mother was so shocked after the riots, she fell ill. It's always the innocent who suffer, I don't want anyone to die, I don't want people to suffer because of me . . .'

Abruptly I go to my room. I can hear Hasina's voice, Hari's, the parrot's deep guttural croaks that sound like snores. The murmurs cease, the door bangs. The parrot starts again, stops. There is complete silence in the house. Hari comes to my room.


I see from his face that he knows, he knows why I left the room.

'Do you want to speak of it?'

I look dumbly at him.

'I remember, very vaguely, reciting the Surya-namaskar that day. It's like a dream, but I can remember that you got up and walked away when I said 'Adityaya namaha'. Is it so hard even to hear your son's name?'

After all these days, after so many months, suddenly it's time for me to confront the chaos, to make sense of it, to speak of it, to convert the fractured images, the vague shapes and sounds into a coherent word pattern. Certain images still escape me, they whirl around in a dark, chaotic maelstrom. The final moments of madness between Som and me, when I, driven to desperation by the wildness of a man I could no longer recognize, cried out loudly. The pain and darkness in my head, the thudding sound -- was it Som banging my head against the wall, or was I doing it to myself? And then Adit's face, his anguished face, his panicked cries. And who was it who cried out, 'Go away, Adit'? Was it Som, or was it I? Whose voice was it that drove him away, that sent him to his death? At times -- more often -- it is my own voice I hear shouting at Adit, telling him to go away, at other times, it's Som's voice that says those words. Did Adit come to us, did he come between us, did he try to stop the senseless violence? I don't know. I can only remember the sudden silence, the cessation of all sound, the emptiness in my head that only moments ago had been full of pain and darkness. And Som's blank face, the rage that had suffused him for so long, spent, leaving behind a hollow man.

These are the things I can't speak of, these are the things I don't speak of to Hari. I begin with the waiting, the two days and two nights of waiting for Adit to return, the two days and two nights of sitting by the phone, waiting for it to ring, waiting for Adit's voice to speak. But after that first night, when it rang four times, and I heard Adit's voice once, it was never Adit.

'He's a going out with the tide . . .'

We no longer believe that there are any links between our lives and the ebb and flow of the sea, the movements and conjunctions of the planets, the phases of the moon. Yet, at times, an ancient belief struggles through the layers of reason and reason itself wonders: placed as we are in the midst of all these phenomena, knowing how they are all connected, how can we alone not be linked to the rhythms of the universe? Why do we imagine that we humans are set apart from the rest of creation which is linked in so many mysterious ways we can never hope to decipher? Why is the unseen and the unknown the impossible to us?

December, January, February -- mobs running amok in the city. These things have never happened before, not this way. I have heard Leela speak of what happened after Independence -- in '47, '48. But this time there is a difference. There's a sense of an efficient malignant force at work, working out its plans through these mobs. Even we, who live in our safe middle-class apartments, way above the ground, can feel the subterranean amblings. Even I, caught up in my conflict with Som, can see the difference when I go out on the streets. For thirty years I've moved about in this city and never once known fear. But now, it lies like a pall above us. The streets are almost deserted at night, and those who have to be out look nervously over their shoulders and walk at a rapid pace. Hostility, suspicion and anger, which have become a part of my life at home with Som, are waiting for me when I go out of the house as well. There's a miasma, the smell of disaster in the air, but we are still free of it, still immune to it. Or so we think.

It is the third day of our waiting for Adit. We have lived through two days and nights of his absence, of not knowing where he is, nights choked with fear and grief. But there's hope, too; he will come back, surely he will return home, any moment he will be here with us. Som has gone out, I don't know where, and I am alone at home. It is so silent that I can hear the two clocks ticking, two separate sounds, the time in the two never merging. For me, it is like two different racks on which I am stretched, each moment, each ticking second, one more since Adit left, one more without his return.

I am sitting by the phone, as I have been since that first night. The first time I picked up the phone that night, I heard Adit's voice, I knew it was Adit, though I could not get a word of what he was saying. It rang again, three times after that, but each time there was only silence. Nevertheless, l knew that each time it was Adit on the line. I spoke to the silence, I pleaded with it. 'Come home, Adit, come home, Adit, please come home.' I cried out the same words over and over again. What else was there that I could say to him, what more did I want to say, anyway? The final, the fourth time it rang, Som took the phone from my hand, he pulled it out of my tightly grasping hand and held it to his ear.

'There's no one,' he said. 'It's dead.'

He didn't understand, it was Adit, I could identify even the silence as Adit's. It didn't matter to me that he did not speak; he could hear me, he could hear my voice, that was enough. And I had to speak, I knew I could convince him to come back home.

All day I sat by the phone. Each time it rang, I picked it up on the instant. And when it was neither Adit, nor his silence, I put it back, keeping my hand tightly pressed on it, shutting off all those voices clogging the phone, preventing Adit from reaching us. And then, remembering that, perhaps, even at that moment, Adit was trying to get through, I took my hand off the phone and waited for it to ring, for Adit's voice to come to me.

Now all that has ended. I have almost given up hope of hearing Adit's voice on the phone. It rings repeatedly, but it's always for Som, patients each time, asking me where Som is. And repeatedly, a voice that gives no name, saying, 'Tell doctor-saab not to go out today, tell doctor-saab to stay at home.'

For the first time I begin to notice something odd, the silence not only in our flat, but outside. An eerie lack of sound. The world has changed for us, we no longer have any routine left. These two days have distanced us from it so much that it lies at an immeasurable distance. And so, at first it does not sink in, the fact that the silence has given way to sounds, sounds of cars driving in, doors slamming, the lift moving up and down, children's feet running along the corridors, children's voices calling out -- children who should have been at school at this time. All these sounds, unusual for the time of the day, are like the untimely flight of birds frightened by something.

The door of our flat opens and the phone rings at almost the same time as Som enters. He picks it up and listens. Something in his expression startles me, I get up in one wild flurried movement. Adit! He sees me, he makes a gesture that says 'no, it isn't Adit'. He listens, he nods, he says no more than ·'Thik hai, thik hai'. When he puts it down he tells me it was someone asking him not to go out. To stay at home. He tells me then what has happened in the city, what is happening to it. He tells me of the bombs that have gone off across the city, a series of macabre bonfires lighting it up. The Stock Exchange Building, he says. Air India . . .

I listen to him, not really interested in what he is saying. What has this to do with Adit? It's Adit I'm waiting for, it's news of him I want. I say so to Som and he listens without a word. We sit across each other at the table, both of us silent, both of us waiting. A little later, he puts his head down on the table. Is he crying? Is there something he hasn't told me? I shake him, I rouse him out of it, but there are no tears on his face. Just blankness. Some time in the evening, the bell rings. Som opens the door and comes back to tell me he is going out, he will be back in a while. I wait, I don't know for how long. Time has ceased

ticking, I can no longer hear the sounds, as if both the clocks have stopped. I can hear only the pounding in my head, the blood singing in my ears -- these are the clocks counting the minutes for me now.

Later -- how much later?-- they come in. Chandru, Tony and Som. Yes, Som is with them, it is his face I look at. And in an instant I know what they have come to tell me, I know what they are going to say. I don't want to know, I don't want to hear the words. I can't remember what I say or do, I can only remember a voice calling out my name over and over again, someone sobbing. And then silence again.

They say your identity is stamped on every cell of your body, your signature is all over it. Did they see -- Adit's name when they collected the limbs and gave them my son's name? They say you can't be identified by your possessions. But they identified my son by his -- his watch, his clothes, his ring. . .

The flat is crowded. I'm surrounded by people, people crying, sitting silently, speaking to me, putting their arms about me. None of it reaches me. Somewhere, in the labyrinthine tunnels of my mind, I can hear the phone ringing, I can hear the silence that is Adit. I'm still sitting by the phone, I allow no one else to pick it up. But each time I take it, there are different voices, all of them saying the same things: I heard the news. Is It true; I'm sorry . . . we are sorry . . . we're so sorry . . .

What are they sorry about? What are all these people doing in our house? I want them to go away, to leave us alone. Adit won't come home until they've gone, I know that. And finally, thankfully, Som and I are left to ourselves.

'He's dead, Madhu. Our son is dead. Listen to me, just listen, he's dead. I cremated him myself. Adit is dead, Madhu, he's gone, stop waiting for him.'

I won't listen, I refuse to hear these words. They keep coming, Chandru, Tony, Rekha, Nisha, Rajani -- even Phillo comes, her face, wet with tears, as swollen as her feet in her too-tight shoes. Ketaki holds me close, she cries, but it's like meeting an acquaintance from a past life. At last, tired of meeting my intransigence, understanding it's no use, they stop coming. Tony is the only one who won't give up.

You must accept it, Madhu. Adit's gone. He won't come hack. Cry for him, mourn him, but don't wait for him.'

I understand now what I have to do. It's not enough to believe he's alive, to say that the body they cremated was not Adit's. I have to do more, I have to go out and find him. I start going out every day, I begin looking for him. And one day I am rewarded, I see him. He's part of a crowd waiting at the traffic light to cross the road. Even as I move towards him, the lights change, the throng races across. I run after them, narrowly escaping collision with a taxi -- the lights have changed again, the traffic comes roaring down the road, the taxi driver mouths curses at me. I am uncaring of everything but Adit. I must get to him, I must catch him. But he's disappeared.

It doesn't matter. I've seen him, he's alive. I say this to Som. I'll find him and bring him home tomorrow, I promise him. His face changes, I can gauge his disbelief, I can see pity for me on his face. But I go out the next day buoyed by hope. This time I'll get to him, I'll speak to him, I'll bring him back home. Som will see I am right, he'll realize I was always right. And yes, the next day I see Adit again, but once more it's only a glimpse. I see him board a bus, a bus that moves away before I can get near. It doesn't matter, I've noted the number of the bus. I take the next one, I go all the way to the terminus, but it's no use.

I'm not unhappy. The glimpse I had was reward enough. Now each morning I wake up with the hope, with the thought -- I'll see Adit today. And I do. Flashing glimpses, but they keep me alive, they keep me going. I roam the streets till evening and then hurry back home, along with all those men and women returning at the end of a day's work. I sleep a sound dreamless sleep at night now -- it's like a death almost -- and in the morning, I join the army of workers once again. I am scarcely at home. I don't know who cooks, but there is food on the table when I return.

'Stop this,' Som pleads with me. 'Stop it, Madhu, it's madness.'

Tony begs me to go out for a holiday with him and Rekha. 'Just for a few days,' he says. 'It'll do you good,' he says. As if I'm ill, as if I'm a convalescent. Som and Chandru want me to take some pills, they want me to stay home, they beg me not to go out any more.

These people are shadows, their words only meaningless sounds.

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