by Chirasree Bose
Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set, Alok woke up with a start, the words still ringing in his head and a well-known yet blurry face flashing before his eyes. Getting to his feet, he slowly moved towards the window facing his bed and looked through the glass. The face from his dream started to get clear now, taking him back to the days of his life he had abandoned a long time ago. He slid open the window with his feeble, shaky hand, his eyes fixed on a bench outside in the grassy field by the pond.
Mugdha had been staring at the clear still water of the pond for what seemed like ages. Her heart felt heavy. It had been two days since her daughter had left her here. There had been no communication between them since then. Mugdha sighed heavily, she’d call...she must be busy now...but I called her so many times...why..., the constant battle between the heart and the brain exhausted her. She swallowed back the lump that had formed in her throat.
‘Mind if I join you?’
The voice jerked Mugdha out of her trance. She moved her head sideways and looked at the man standing next to the bench she was sitting on. Scrunching her eyebrows together, she watched his face for a while, then smiled faintly. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here.’ She replied.
‘Me too.’ Alok smiled back at her. He sat down next to her, maintaining a distance.
A long silence filled the air around them. Alok looked ahead at the playground on the other side of the pond, while Mugdha stared down at her feet.
‘You totally ignored me yesterday at dinner.’ She said, breaking the silence after a minute.
Alok heaved a sigh. He nodded and looked at her. She smiled dryly. ‘What makes you join me today then?’
‘Dream?’ Mugdha looked perplexed.
‘It took me back to the day I first saw you...52 years ago.’ Alok paused for a moment, then continued, ‘I was surprised that those memories still hadn’t faded away.’
Mugdha silently watched him as he added, ‘those memories are so old and vague that it seems like they belong to another life.’
‘A life that we chose to live together.’ She murmured, shifting her gaze away.
He heard her. His heavy-lidded, wrinkly eyes stole a quick glance at her and dropped thereafter.
A cool breeze blew in out of nowhere, making both of them close their eyes and inhale it deeply. The warm rays of the Sun and the fluffy pieces of cloud up in the Sky made it a perfect spring morning. The chirping and chattering of the birds on the branches a little above their heads just added to the pleasure.
‘You remember the day I finally mustered the courage to propose?’ Alok asked, opening his eyes slowly, letting the soft light of Sun soothe them.
Mugdha nodded. ‘How can I forget it? The topper Alok proposed to me, the most impish girl in high school!’
‘I want to spend my life with you,’ Alok paused, then added, ‘I’d said, to which you replied…’
‘You know, life is not one of those tests that come with a predefined syllabus. Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. You may not top this exam, Mr. Topper. And what if you fail?’ Mugdha completed his sentence, staring blankly up at the sky.
Her words stung the 70-year-old. His head hung low. ‘You still remember!!’
Mugdha looked at him. ‘Don’t you?’
‘You always said things that I couldn’t fathom until it was too late.’ said Alok after a while.
Mugdha silently surveyed his face. She could tell something in him had changed. He was not the same man she had known for years.
‘You know, Mugdha, I always thought I had left those days behind...I thought those memories had waned long ago, but this morning I woke up to these words of yours, which made me go through the pages of my life over and over again.’ He sighed deeply. A smile suddenly crossed his lips. ‘Those days, at some point in our lives, made both of us happy, didn’t they?’ He added.
Mugdha nodded. ‘I always wondered why you had chosen me. We were so different from each other!’
‘Why did you choose me?’ asked Alok.
‘Because for the first time in my life I felt valued.’ She looked in his eyes. Her eyes were tired. Yet those dreary eyes, for a moment, seemed to twinkle.
Alok stared at her face for a long time, his eyes looking for something long lost. ‘I can’t believe it’s been 52 years. You look so different now...I can’t picture you as her anymore...but you know what!’ He stopped. He shifted his gaze away, his hesitation palpable. ‘Your eyes haven’t aged at all. I had once seen my world in them.’
Mugdha gave a faint laugh, shaking her head slowly. ‘These eyes are old, Mr. Topper...they are tired now...all they want is...’
Her voice choked. She turned her face away.
His forehead furrowed. Alok sensed her unspoken words. He wanted to comfort her, but words stuck in his throat. A couple of minutes passed in silence. Seeing her still struggling hard to suppress her tears, Alok blurted out, ‘what happened, Mugdha?’
She remained silent; her frequent sniffles told Alok why she
couldn’t speak. He hesitantly put his hand on hers.
Mugdha took a deep breath and moved her face sideways to face him. Her eyes were red and moist, the crinkles around her eyes more pronounced. At that moment she looked way older than she actually was. ‘I’m scared, Alok.’ She said quietly.
She took some time to calm herself. ‘She left me alone. She too abandoned me, Alok. She was all I had.’
Mugdha said nothing. But Alok could decipher her silence.
‘She doesn’t answer my calls or even if she does, she would hang up saying she’s busy.’ Mugdha heaved a long sigh. She took a short pause before adding, ‘is this what I deserve after everything I did for her, Alok?’
He had no answer for her question. But him staying silent would kill her a bit more, he knew that. ‘See Mugdha, I don’t know much about raising kids since I don’t have any, but I’m sure you’ve done a great job. So if she can’t make time for you now, it’s not your fault. Neither can you do anything about it. You cannot expect her to be the source of your happiness all the time. That’s not fair, both to you and her. Maybe she also is fighting her own battle day and night.’ Alok put his hand on her shoulder.
‘But how can I accept ending up here...in an old age home? She left me here so she can handle her life without worrying about me. Am I a burden on her now?’ Mugdha paused for breath. ‘I chose her when she had nobody, I took her home, gave her a name, an identity and all she did was throw me away!!’ Her voice choked, but she managed to smother her tears.
Alok removed his hand from her shoulder and grabbed her quivering hand. ‘Calm down, Mugdha.’ He then turned his face to the kids playing soccer on the other side of the pond. ‘You know how I ended up here?’ His face turned stern.
By then Mugdha had managed to calm down her surging emotions. She withdrew her hand from his and followed his gaze.
Alok continued, ‘I had been in depression for many years. I even reached the point of becoming suicidal. But I had nobody to blame...but myself. My own ambition had been slowly poisoning my life. I wanted to earn money, be rich, and lead a lavish lifestyle. And in the process I lost everything else. But if anybody could fix my life then it was me. So when I learnt that there were many people out there fighting the same battle as me, I put half my savings into building this place where people like me could find solace in each other. For some, it’s just an old age home like you just called it, for some it’s just four walls and a roof enough for the rest of your life, but for people like us it’s our oasis.’
Mugdha gaped at him in astonishment. ‘I didn’t know this place belongs to you!’
Alok smiled feebly.
She looked back over her shoulder. Her spectacled eyes stopped on the giant whiteboard hanging above the front door of the building, which read, ‘The Oasis’. ‘When did you change so much?’ Her eyes remained fixed on it. ‘I always thought you...you…’
‘I think only of myself?’ Alok forced a laugh. ‘Yes, you were right, Mugdha. Probably that was the very reason why our marriage didn’t work.’
Mugdha turned to him. She squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed back a lump in her throat. ‘Was it?’
Alok nodded. ‘I left you here all alone and moved abroad to work on my dream. I abandoned our life, the life that I had promised you. The dollars I earned surely offered me a fancy life, but that life has always been empty without you in it. I wish I had realized it before.’
‘No, Alok.’ Mugdha stopped him. ‘I should’ve been more patient with you. You’re right. All my life I’ve expected others to be the source of my happiness. First you, then Asha. I should be happy that I gave her the life that she deserved. I cannot expect her to be there for me all the time. That’s what I did with you. Not being able to stand the loneliness anymore, I left you. I broke our marriage.’ Tears began to flow down her cheeks as she spoke.
Alok held his hand out to wipe them away, but before he could do so, Mugdha’s phone started buzzing.
Her eyes twinkled as she looked down at the mobile in her lap. ‘Asha!’ She uttered in a rusty voice after answering the call.
‘Sorry Ma, I just saw your missed calls. I was driving. I went to drop Meera at school. You know how naughty she has become of late!’ Asha exclaimed, at the other end of the line.
Mugdha smiled to herself. ‘She’s just like you.’ She sniffled hard. The sound of Asha’s voice was all her ailing heart needed at that time.
‘Are you fine, Ma? You seem a little off?’
Mugdha looked at Alok and smiled. ‘I am fine, Asha...and you were right. This is a good place. I’ve already made a friend here. I just want you to know that I’m happy. I guess I’ve found my oasis.’
Mugdha pressed his hand. ‘Thank you.’ She whispered, smiling at him. ***