(Is deliverance within reach?)
A Short Story by Dr. Sukumar Canada
When his mind returned from wandering
aimlessly like a meandering stream, the concert was over, the auditorium, almost
empty. The singer was getting up, a
smile on her face, hands moving quickly to straighten the shimmering folds of
her sari before coming together in a “Namaste.”
The tranquil notes of the raga Saaramathi lingered in his mind,
filling it with contentment.
Then, why was it different now? Anyway, now there was nothing to ponder about.
Until now he had never gone anywhere without proper planning. Now nothing mattered –work, responsibilities, friends, the family far away, nothing. Let the rest of his life, six or seven months, be just for himself, alone. Who had told him the story of Pareekshit, the king who found that he had only seven days left to live? Seven days to wait for the serpent Thakshaka to sink its fangs into his flesh?.
“What you have in hand now is a multi-million dollar project. If this goes well, you will gain money and recognition that will last your whole life,” Promilla Mathur had told him in a special meeting. He was going to have the complete responsibility.
Now, it is clear that all these calculations are meaningless. Everything had happened according to plan in his life—until now. He was used to winning one victory after another. Recognition came to him from everywhere. With the ideal IIT–IIM combination at the core of his credentials, the jobs he got were always the best. He never stayed in one job for more than two or three years—he was constantly on the move, his salary and perks getting heftier with each move. But here, in the present job, he was finishing up the sixth year. He had actually enjoyed the frantic pace of work, and the ever-increasing responsibilities and the financial package and perks accompanied.
Physically, he had never felt better, and as always, had tried to laugh it off when Dr. Suman made his annual call two weeks ago asking him to come down for a routine physical. What do I need a physical for? He was confident no illness would ever touch him. He was fit and had never even had the bad flu his entire life. But Dr. Suman insisted. ‘You are about to hit thirty-five. Just for the sake of keeping records, we should take some X-rays and do some bloodwork. Just for the record! I don’t understand you guys—and I have one at home too—no ties, not a care in the world. ‘I like being on my own’ he says. ‘Work hard, play hard’.
Eventually, he had relented and went in for the tests Saturday afternoon just because he did not want to say no to the doctor who was his uncle’s college classmate.
Then, this morning, the unexpected phone call came. “You should come here as soon as possible. Even if you are very busy, please show up, Okay?” Dr. Suman sounded tense, stressed. The high of the past weekend’s concert had not quite left his system. “Mokshamu- galadaa.”
The doctor had asked him to call off all his appointments and cut the call short without getting into any details. How could he postpone his meeting with the clients from Atlanta? Time is money. What does the doctor know about IT projects?
“Uncle, I will come in the evening.
When he met the doctor at his home late that evening, the doctor seemed unusually quiet
“Is everything ok? Are you feeling all right?
“Oh - yes. Nothing to worry about, but, look, we should test your blood once again. The sample we took last week was abnormal. There is no way those results can be right. Still, we have to rule out everything.”
“Uncle, tell me, what is wrong?”
After some persuasion, the doctor said: “It seemed like there was some abnormality in your blood sample. But we should test it again—at another lab. I will give you my report later.
Before leaving, he handed a hundred rupee bill to the young lad who managed the office for the doctor and got him to make a quick copy of the main page of the lab report without the doctor’s knowledge. By the time he got to the car parked in the lot next door, he had seen the note scribbled at the end of the report “Abnormal. Six months, or seven at the most. Re-test to confirm.”
First, it sounded like a mere joke. Labs make mistakes, as the doctor had said. It could be somebody else’s report —he did not have a copy of the front page anyway. ‘No, let me face it, why should I try to pass a tragedy destined specifically for this life onto someone else?’
The number seven stuck to his consciousness. Seven more months!. The seven day reading of scripture, the saptaaham he attended as a child with his father and forgotten all about, came back to him in a rush. Three lines, three short lines, from the seven long days of storytelling kept echoing in his head. “You dishonored a nobleman, and your end will come on the seventh day from today. Death by snake-bite!. The serpent Thakshaka will execute the curse.”
Was this perhaps the punishment for wrapping the snake of arrogance around one’s own neck?.
All of a sudden, everywhere it was as quiet as a windless ocean. Silence, and as far as the eyes could see, it was nothingness. He did not remember getting into the car, or turning the ignition on—when the noise of tires screeching to a halt startled him, the car was in front of his apartment building. Today, he reached home real quick. There were no traffic blocks on the way. Or were there?
He made no attempts to find out a reason to discuss it with someone. He had some cash stashed away in the apartment- money meant for buying a house by the river in his village. He made his way to the bank—the bank was closed for the day, and the building seemed deserted. Before the regular guard could finish his “hello” and “how are you,” he gave him a hundred rupee note and walked over to the ATM.
Once back home, it didn’t take him long to pack. He left the key as usual with the security guard of the building and walked straight to the train station.
There is no use worrying, he knew. No need to tell anyone. Live life to the fullest. He wanted to enjoy the life that he had not known until then. Seven months to live; no work; no responsibilities. Enjoy it to the maximum. That was the way to go.
When did the mind get so much strength? Or had he aspired for this kind of an escape in the past without being aware of it?
As soon as the train left Mumbai City, sleep took over him for some reason. When he woke up, it was past five in the morning. The train had stopped in a village in Tamil Nadu. He got off. An unknown place!. No one would recognize him.
The young tour guide he met at the station, Manivannan, knew every nook and cranny of the village well and found him a tiny house to stay. When he found out it was up for sale, and the owner was letting it out till he found a buyer, he bought it, paying more than the asking. In the beginning, he kept the neighbors at a distance. Although he knew that the bottles that Manivannan bought him were overpriced, he paid him what he asked for. The women Manivannan brought over had the Tamil vivacity. But all that lost their appeal in a short time. Days passed by, with no Internet or newspaper to bother him; he had left his phone at the apartmen
No, there were no signs of fatigue in the body, he thought.
Somehow, gradually, he started becoming a member of the village. The villagers got used to his Malayali-Tamil that murdered their language. Folk began to consider him as a “man who knows things.” Under his initiative, arrangements were made to start a computer center for the village youth, and the night before it opened, he left the village. While setting up the web page for the new center, he had come across a web feature that mentioned his disappearance. “It is being suspected that the IT manager who disappeared suddenly might have been kidnapped by extremists.”
Four out of the seven months that the doctor had granted were over. There was another trip to take. And there was a limit to the allotted time.
When he reached the shores of Godavari River in Andhra, he bought a sacred thread and slipped it over his head. He felt no remorse about the charade. He didn’t want any rejections anywhere just because he was not a biological Brahmin! Inside the inner sanctum of temples, in the temple kitchens and dining halls, nobody stopped him. He felt a thrill at becoming a character in a cartoon. While performing the yoga and breathing exercises along with some of the pilgrims, he chuckled inside. What for does he need good health? At this stage, of what use is it for the body to develop good habits such as exercise and yoga? Only days, a few weeks…
It had been days since he checked how much money he had left. When the small cloth bag he carried felt weightless, he discarded that also.
Later, in the courtyard of a temple on the shores of the river, a bearded sanyasi, who had just finished his discourse looked intently into his eyes and asked, “Do you want to come with us?”
Is it time for him to leave yet? The sanyasi’s beard had only just begun to become gray. Is this swaamiji capable of guiding him? Even if he was led astray by the monk, who is really going astray, and for how long?
He followed the monk on to the train, ordinary class, to Haridwar. Those in ochre robes needed no tickets to travel in Northern India. A dip in the river Ganga gave him the kind of solace and contentment a vivacious woman or an array of fancy food could never give. Every day, he joined the sanyasi and other seekers in the ritual sun salutations. Again, training in Pranayama, Uddiyaanam, and Shavaasanaa, The corpse posture. (The American follower of the Swami often says: Shavaasanaa! That is my favorite yoga!”)
Managing the mind was not on the IIM’s curriculum, he thought, and it was unchartered territory for him. When the swaamiji spoke about it, it was not mere advice. During a chance that came almost like a predestined event, he mentioned the infinite possibility of human consciousness.
While listening to those words, he felt like these are the same thoughts he had had throughout his life. Among mental phenomena, the most important is emotion. Then comes Buddhi, the guidance of the intellect. After that comes the sense of “I” which wonders what use do emotions and a sharp intelligence serve. Only after that would the sun of discriminating intelligence, VivEkam would rise. This gives the seeker the gift of development of the soul. It is a stage that one comes to through observation and control. None of these are created anew. All these are stages of evolution denoting a step by step progress and these do pre-exist in our consciousness.
Days were passing by. Of the seven months, only seven days remained. He made an attempt to arrest the mind in an invocation mode using the mantras known to him.
“What are you thinking about? Do you feel like you want to end journeys of all kinds?” swaamiji was asking. As if reading his mind, the swami continued:
“Fear (bheethi) has no place in consciousness. Happiness (preethi) is what deserves a position in the mind – that is one’s own happiness. There is no need to impart that to others. If the others want it, then we should give them a chance to part take in it, with no reservation. That is all”.
The swaamiji did not ask anything about the beginning of his journey. And he did not want to initiate his story either.
All of a sudden, the swaamiji said: “Do you know the story of King Pareekshit’s laying the dead snake on the shoulders of Sage Sameeka? That is a projection of “inertness” – jadata – on chaitanyam , the living consciousness”. That is a fallacy of the mind. That is all. The seven day limit to life!”Without taking the story anywhere, the swaamiji dived into Ganga waters and was gone. Expert swimmer? Or an expert diver that runs away from situations?
When had he begun to pray? He had never prayed for a change in fate—this sudden realization hit him then. He did not desire to prolong his life either.
On the shores of Ganga, there are a few pristine locations, known only to some advanced sanyasis. At those Ghats, the crystal clear Ganga obeys no human restraints, and the chains typically anchored at the sloping steps to help pilgrims are absent.
His head and nerves were swimming playfully in the waves of cold Ganga. The mind was awakening with more power than ever. He felt like new sources and springs of energy were suddenly forming inside. Is this the celebratory exuberance of the life particle that was about to take off from this hollow nest like a bird?
One more day till the seven-month deadline of this ‘project’! For the farewell, waves of the river– the Mother Nature, Ganga will be more than enough. For some reason, he thought about Mani Krishnaswaami singing the elaborate aalaapana of the raga Saramathi. Her face resembled that of his mother’s. He was still the three-year-old boy who used to push his one-year-old sister from his mother’s lap to sit there as she recited “Agrey pashyaami,” so he could touch the veins on her neck. He would finger those veins one by one until she went through the Keshaadipaadam as the finale. He could still feel the vibrations of her throat and the sad monotone was very much alive in his heart.
When he climbed up to the riverbank, he saw the familiar sight of a burning funeral pyre in the distance. The crowd gathered around the pyre seemed quite affluent—this pyre is destined to burn to the end. He thought. Weren’t the half-burnt corpses thrown off into the river those of the poor? The disparity in life seems to follow through in death. The faces of the wealthy are full, round, and colorful while those of the poor are always black and white as in a Satyajit Ray movie that would go for national awards.
For today’s meal, he did not have to go anywhere else—funeral rites of the wealthy always involved a feast for the poor. And for tomorrow—there may be no need for a meal at all. Tomorrow, what is left will be the empty shell, ready to be offered to the sacred Agni - the eternal fire that is ever ready to burn up even the intestinal fire inside the living body.
Along with the other alms-seekers, he went up to the group near the pyre and extended his palm for the food. The hands that served the rice wrapped in banana leaf seemed familiar. He held himself back. He should not let the past, the familiar thoughts and faces stain his mind.
Yes, that was Dr. Suman. Suddenly he turned around and walked away as fast as he could. He felt that he would not be able to tolerate the doctor’s advice, scolding, and words of sympathy any longer. He did not need them anymore either. For the last journey, the most pleasant place to rest would be the lap of the Cosmic Mother than the clinical security of a hospital. Then, the doctor ran toward him after throwing away everything in his hands and stopped him.
“I was in doubt right from the beginning. The lab result was a mistake. I was wrong. You have no illness. It was my son who was sick. I came here with his body. The corpse burning in that pyre is his.”
He was surprised that the doctor was so calm as he uttered these words. He was also surprised that this news did not shock him either. He wasn’t elated or sad. His mind felt only the lightness of the feeling of listening to a story, although familiar, that was slowly opening as if it was a flower with its petals one by one, like that of a blossoming flower
“The names got mixed up for your blood sample. The error was committed by the clerk in the lab. In fact my son had only a limited time left to live! We took a long time to find out that about him. He left one day before the seven months I had predicted in the report. We discovered the identity error in blood sample only this past week. As you know, we all have been in a rush all the time. And he was just like you, busy, winning everything that he put his hands on. I feel now that he lived fully well only during the last seven days of his life. Till then he had been running around all over to establish his own empires. But at the end we opened up. I did not know that there were so many things to be said between us. Neither did he.”
The body has been made strong through yoga, with a matching mind made perfect through meditation. Is this what they call Moksha ? Who promised moksha in seven months? Am I the owner of this life force that has been projected onto the eternal consciousness?
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