Deepti had gone missing one day before the TV centre in Thiruvananthapuram was commissioned. On their last day together, Prakash and Deepti had mostly talked about TV.
“Considering the state of affairs here, we’ll probably get to watch TV by the time our son goes to college! Though I sometimes wonder whether we will ever really be so lucky.” Deepti laughed, the rich timbre of her voice reminiscent of a finger knocking softly against a bronze pitcher.
That laughter and her question had resounded so often in Prakash’s ears that he had refused to purchase a TV in his home for a very long time. TV, to Prakash, was inexplicably associated with misfortune. In the shock of losing Deepti, the nerves controlling his vision had separated, making him blind. As it turned out, he never really had the luck to watch TV, just as Deepti had predicted.
Much later, when cable TV came into vogue, Prakash had two unexpected visitors at the town’s government college, where he was employed as the chief librarian. A young woman and a man had dropped in, carrying a camera and a microphone.
“We would like to interview you since you are a blind librarian.” The young woman brusquely extended the microphone towards him.
“Where did you get such pretty lips, my girl?” Prakash’s brazen query stunned the woman.
“Ah, you are not blind, are you?”
“Aren’t we all blind in some way or the other?”
Opening Chekov’s Collected Stories and turning to page 132, Prakash started reading out from “The Husband”, the book held close to his nose.
‘It makes me sick to look at her!’ he muttered. ‘Going on for forty and nothing to boast of at any time, she must powder her face and lace herself up!’
The young woman peeked into the book and, seeing that he was perfectly correct, beat a hasty retreat. However, after they had left, Prakash regretted sending them away. Deepti might have seen the TV programme in some corner of the world, recognised him and returned to spread light again in his life. Immersed in this thought, he became extremely frustrated.
Even after so many years he had not been able to reconcile himself to Deepti’s departure. He had been completely prepared to be a father, and eager to play with his little son, when Deepti disappeared. In his mind’s eye, he repeatedly saw how, on that evening, seated in the kitchen, Deepti and he had enjoyed platefuls of ada with their tea.
As the plantain leaf baked in the pan’s heat, a delicious fragrance had filled the air. Amma kept replenishing both their plates with freshly made adas. His Valiyamma was sprinkling the jaggery and coconut mixture over the rice flour spread on other raw plantain leaves.
They discussed many things: Prakash’s leave, Deepti’s transfer, the prospect of fencing the northern boundary of their compound as well as the troublesome rooster that belonged to Santhamma who lived south of their house. It was then that Madhav Menon, Deepti’s father, had arrived with a black bag in one hand and his old umbrella in the other. “Please bring me a cup of tea without sugar,” he requested Prakash’s mother. It was a cosy, homely evening in which they had shared both family news and local gossip.
“Maybe I should come along too,” Prakash had suggested as he packed Deepti’s bag.
“What for?” Deepti smiled at him, pleating her sandalwood-coloured cotton sari with a maroon border. “In fact, there is no need for Acchan to accompany me either! I have been travelling by myself all these years. By the time one wakes up, the train reaches Calicut.”
“I don’t know...I just don’t feel like sending you away by yourself this time.” Standing behind her, Prakash touched the small mole on the back of her neck. He felt a debilitating sense of loss.
Slipping away adroitly, Deepti grinned, her dimples blossoming. “Pregnancy is not a disease, Prakashetta,” she had said, addressing him with her favourite endearment. “This is the last time, right? Once I return, won’t I be with you always?”
He held her affectionately, gazing yearningly into her eyes. “Be careful about your food. Eat lots of fruit.”
Deepti smiled again. He felt that her radiance had increased as she stood in her sari, a bindi on her forehead and her hair plaited. Darkness enveloped him at the thought of being away from her for two weeks.
They went to the railway station in a hired taxi. Prakash helped with their bags when the train arrived. Inside the compartment, Deepti had the lower berth: 31. Her father’s berth was the upper one opposite hers: 36. Prakash handed over two envelopes to Deepti’s father: one containing two tickets to Calicut and another with a return ticket for him for the following day. He plied them both with instructions.
“Remember what the doctor said! And call immediately if you feel any discomfort...”
“Drink lots of water...”
“When you get down, be careful. Don’t trip over your sari...”
Deepti smiled, not dimpling this time.
“Don’t laugh,” Prakash continued. “Don’t take an auto...Father, hail a taxi instead!”
“Yes, Prakash.” Madhav Menon acquiesced.
“You should walk to the office and back, Deepti. Don’t be lazy and travel in an auto or a bus...”
“Prakashetta, you are too much!” Deepti’s dimples bloomed.
Just then the train whistle screeched.
“Prakashetta, please be careful when you drive the scooter.”
It was a warning in the guise of a request. The pain of separation echoed in her voice, like the soft knocking of a finger against a bronze pitcher. Even then he had been cognisant of that.
She accompanied him to the door as he exited the compartment. While making way for a passenger with luggage, Prakash’s forearm brushed against Deepti’s stomach. The baby moved, and he felt it clearly. Goosebumps rose all over his body. Prakash bade Deepti farewell most unwillingly; the pain of parting from her was akin to having half his body suddenly ripped off. Slowly, inexorably, the train rolled forward, leaving him behind; Prakash stood on the platform for a long time, wishing desperately for its return.
That day, on his way back, he had got down from the taxi at the junction and started walking home in the darkness. As he crossed the gravel path beside the canal, he stopped to gaze at the mango tree from which his father had hanged himself. It seemed to be in deep meditation. Not a single leaf quivered.
His father had killed himself when Prakash was eight years old. He had been a gentle and principled judge. But one week prior to his suicide, his Acchan’s behaviour had changed drastically. He had sentenced every accused person brought before him to be hanged, regardless of their crimes! Wife- beating husbands, chilli-stealing thieves, small-time property encroachers, all of them were sentenced to be hanged till death.
Of Prakash’s limited memories of his Acchan, one that hadn’t faded was of an old woman bitterly cursing and lamenting from the gate, while his Acchan ate mangoes, seated on the veranda. Acchan was sitting in his armchair, wearing a mundu with a golden border and a long yellow silk kurta, spooning pieces of juicy yellow mango one by one into his mouth. Another was a picture of his Acchan playing blind man’s buff by himself. In those last few days, Acchan used to insist on Prakash playing with him.
Acchan’s favourite game was to tie a black cloth very tightly around his own eyes, resolutely denying even a glimmer of light from seeping through the fabric. Then with his arms outstretched, he would try to search for his glasses, tobacco pouch and books.
Prakash’s memory still reverberated with the sound of his blindfolded Acchan reading out the titles of the books retrieved from the shelf, holding each one in his hand. In his later life, when Prakash began working as a librarian, that remembrance started haunting him afresh.
Excerpted with permission from The Unseeing Idol of Light, KR Meera, translated by Ministhy S, Penguin Random House India.