In February of 2006, I was asked to conduct a week long seminar for Physics Post-Graduate students of my old college. It was the students who had approached me. They told me they wont be able to pay me much. I liked the way they had taken the initiative and the positive energy with which they talked. Moreover, they came from my Alma Mater… AND from my own department (Oh yes… I am a postgraduate in Physics.) . I agreed to conduct a 2 hour session everyday for a week. I told them they need not pay anything on condition that they all turn up for class punctually and regularly everyday. They agreed happily and I promised to be at the department from the coming Monday onward.
I began my session by asking them what their concept of success was and how to reach it. We had a lively discussion for almost an hour. I kept jotting down the gist of their answers on the blackboard (God… I so love the feel of chalk and the dust…!). By the time the hour ended, we had a pretty wide opinion of what to do to be successful. Then someone- who was wearing a cricket cap- asked me what MY suggestion was. In one corner of the board I drew a flowchart showing what I thought one needed to do to become successful. The guy with the cricket cap was not happy. He disagreed. And I was in the seventh heaven… I love it when participants disagree with me. It gives me a chance to clarify and elaborate and to test myself. In the end, either they learn something, or I do… but both benefit.
I asked the boy his name. “Prakash”**, he declared quietly. He had strange intense eyes. Like an angry bear peering out from his cave. “Oh ho”, I said to myself.
We had a lively discussion that day. When my session in the college got over, he came with me to my office. We continued sparring back and forth until it was time for me to go home 3 hours later. He asked for my cell number which I gave. Before he left, I asked him why he wore the cap. He took it off… and I saw he was bald…! He was only 21. It made him uneasy… that bald head. Sadly, he told me that he lost his hair after his father succumbed to cancer nearly 3 months ago. He loved his father deeply and was devastated at his sudden death. It seems the cancer got diagnosed too late and Prakash’s father passed away within 10 days of being diagnosed. His mother and 2 older married sisters were inconsolable even after 3 months of the tragedy.
Somehow, we built a deep bond that day. Prakash kept in touch with me even after all my sessions were over. I too loved talking to him… I never felt an age difference between us. We became friends. Then this happened… it was May by then.
I called him one day after I hadn’t heard from him for nearly 10 days. It was unusual for him to keep silent for that long. There was no answer to my call. I still remember the date was 18th May 2006. His exam for final year MSc were to begin on 25th. I quelled my uneasiness telling myself he must be busy and will call back. He did call back the next day. And what he told me jerked the ground from under my feet.
On 4th May, his mom had gone to a nearby town to visit her father who was ailing. She was supposed to return by train on the 10th. On the evening of 9th, she called Prakash and told him that his uncle, her brother, who lived in Jabalpur too, had reached her father’s home that day. He had brought his SUV and was planning to return the next morning by road. She told Prakash that they will leave at 5 next morning and that she would be home by 10. She gave him some instructions to give to the maid and hung up.
Prakash was relieved she was returning because almost a week of cooking his own meals and washing his own clothes had been too much for him. Moreover, he hated to be alone in the house without her. An hour later he began to feel uneasy. He called up his mother and told her not to come by car… and to take the train. He told her he was uneasy about her road trip. She pooh-poohed his concerns and told him not to be silly.
The next day, it was almost 12 o’clock and still his mother hadn’t reached home. He called up his uncle’s house suspecting she might have stopped there for a cup of tea or something. His aunt answered the call and said she hadn’t heard from them either and she was also not able to get through to Prakash’s uncle’s cell number. Prakash hung up and called up his mother’s cell. The phone rang but there was no answer. He called again. Nothing. Again and this time the call was received.
It was a man who took the call. Prakash assumed it must be his uncle. “Mamaji…?”, he asked.
“No”, the voice replied. “I am the doctor from the hospital where 2 accident victims from a red Bollero have been brought. The woman is dead, the man badly injured. Come and identify them and take them from here. This is a village hospital, we cannot treat the man here and he badly needs treatment.” The line went dead. In his pain and rage, Prakash banged his cell phone on the floor and broke it into smithereens.
His voice when he related the exchange was raw with pain. For as long as I live, I don’t want to hear so much pain in a voice ever again. I hate the thought of so much pain being possible on earth. Then Prakash said something which makes me cringe and bring tears to my eyes even today when I remember it. He said, “You know how it feels ma’am… when you are waiting eagerly for your alive mother to come home… and they bring in her dead body…?” When he heard me start to cry… would you believe it… it was he who tried to console ME.
After a while, I asked him what he was going to do about his exam. He was a bit taken aback and offended too I am sure. He told me he could not sit for his exam. I didn’t know what to say to him. But I asked him just one question, “Would your mom like it if she knew you’ve thrown away one year of your life like this..?” He didn’t reply. I told him I was not asking him to sit for his exam. That he must choose for himself. The only reply he gave to that was to ask me to call everyday and NOT to talk of his mother… or ask how he was… or remind him of the tragedy in anyway. I promised to do what he asked of me. After I rang off, I promised myself that I wouldn’t refer again to his exam.
I called him everyday. Before I called him I called his friends to find out what they were doing and would pass on their messages to him. I used to collect funny incidents to relate to him. I just talked to him about nothing at all. He would be silent… then suddenly he would begin to talk. Once he related an incident about his dad. I didn’t like to point out to him that he spoke of his dad as if his dad was still alive. He sounded almost happy. Meanwhile his exams grew closer.
On 24th morning he called me. I normally called him around 3 in the afternoon. Consequently I was surprised when he called in the morning. “I just called to tell you something”, he said. “I know you are worried about it. I am going to sit for my exam. As you said, my mother would be really angry if she saw me using her death as an excuse to wallow in self-pity. She died on Mother’s Day… I think I’ll give her a gift this year at last.”
He sat for his exam. I continued to talk to him everyday. Twice he asked me to clarify physics concepts for him… which I had to brush up again(I still have my books with me) and teach him on phone. I don’t think I did even an adequate job of it… but I tried my best. When the result came… would you believe it… he scored 78% aggregate…?!!
Today he is a Lieutenant in the army. He cleared his Short Service Boards in 2008. He came to meet me in January 2009 wearing his uniform. He still didn’t have much hair on his head, but he was not wearing a cap. He stood tall and smiling happily. He was thinner, his cheeks hollow but he stood ramrod straight. He deliberately didn’t call me before he walked into my office. He marched into my office suddenly his steps sounding crisp. When I stood up in surprise, he came over and hugged me.
The first thing he said to me was, “Now don’t start crying all over my new uniform like a typical mother.”
** Name changed.
Note: This is a true story with no embellishments or exaggerations.
Written on: 13th Mar 2010