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<%-- Page Title--%> Fiction <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 139 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 23, 2004

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The Fatal llness
SALMA SOBHAN

Her mother was dying. In the little white-washed cabin where she lay, the occasional clank of the overhead fan cut into the sombre sounds of the dying woman's moans, alien in its incongruity, like an attack of hiccups at a prayer meeting. Munni, sitting by her mother's bedside, tried to block her thoughts by concentrating on this noise as one might try to hypnotise oneself by staring into a flashing light. An impossibility. The drawn white face, ugly in its suffering, could not be shut out any more than the moans could remain unheard. Dying is a lonely business and so though Munni sat by her bedside, her mother remained alone.

You and me both, thought Munni. She looked involuntarily towards the verandah knowing that Badol was miles away and that no miracle would bring him to her at that moment. She had long ceased to expect that particular miracle as the sick woman had an end to her pain. The doctor had been quite clear on this point. There would be, could be, no merciful blurring of consciousness for her mother, no passing away of life dulled by analgesics.

"We can sedate her only so far," he had said matter of factly.

His period of idealism had passed, as had those nights when, as an intern, he sat up with his terminally ill patients. Now he slept of a night when he could, grateful if his patients could hold off from their primeval business of birth and death for those few hours.

"To a certain extent," he had added, comfortingly, "Nature will sedate for herself."

But nature had not--at least not sufficiently--and the mother cried out from time to time while the daughter shivered in distaste.

Munni hated those animal cries of pain. She remembered the birth of her son, her only child. The woman in the cabin next door had either been in great pain, or very frightened, or possibly both. She had kept moaning with pain. Lowing like a cow, Munni had thought savagely, and had hated her with a venomous intensity because those moans undermined her own resolution not to cry out more surely than her own recurring pain.

Her mother's moans and whimpers were hardly self-indulgent. Yet Munni hated her for them and herself for hating. And Badol she hated for not being there. But then when had he ever been with her?

Their wedding-night, what is left of it. Her sisters-in-law have seated her on the bridal bed hung with tinsel and have left her, lightened of her jewellery but pretty enough in her ifshan kajal and mehendi. Badol has come in and is standing beside her and her heart beats wildly with a most unmaidenly excitement.

"Munni," he is saying, "I must go."
"Go?" she repeats stupidly, "Go where?"
"It's a meeting. We couldn't postpone it. It may be the start of something tremendous."

A quick kiss and he had gone. She had remained seated all night frozen with resentment and unhappiness but he never knew, as he did not get back till noon the following day. That had been over 20 years ago and what had started had been something tremendous the Language Movement.

The night after Badol returned, he had been loving and exhilarated, misquoting half-remembered poets between kisses, and she had forgiven him. A month later she was alone again for Badol was in jail and the pattern had been set for their life. The Language Movement had been followed by martial law and Badol, by now a full-fledged party-worker, had had to go underground. Sometimes she felt that he had buried their love underground too.

Badol had said to her once, "When you fight against my involvement, you fight against me and all I am and hope for. Try to understand."

But all she understood was that their son had been two years old before his father had seen him. As the years went by, the mainstream of political movement seemed to have passed Badol by, while a handful of comrades fought for causes lost beyond recall.

That, however, had not saved him from having a price on his head in 1971.

And for the nine months during which a new nation gestated and was born, they were apart yet again. She had been with her mother in their village home. Badol and their village home. Badol and their son forming part of an independent guerilla unit, cut off from his erstwhile companions who foresaw their own doom though the country be liberated.

And when liberation came they were still apart for there

was still so much to do.

"We have only just started our fight," he would say.

The fan clanked again. It was almost human, like the sick woman herself. Silent for a while and then suddenly there would be the harsh metallic sound. Her mother whimpered again. Munni looked at her. She was fleetingly conscious.

"Munni, shona lokkhi," the lips formed the old terms of endearment but her tone was abject, pleading. "I beg you don't let them keep me alive any more. Tell them to let me go." But Munni knew that they would go on trying. Thank God the resources of this tiny mission hospital were too limited to prolong the dying much further. It had been terrible enough as it was. The transfusion a day before had had appalling results. Her mother had just haemorrhaged all over.

"The tissues are so diseased," explained the doctor.

Munni had longed to say, "Then stop trying. Let her go in peace."

But she had said nothing. The useless round would soon start again: the injections, the drugs, the drip... her mother must be dragged back from death though her hands be fastened at its door like a beggar at the gate crying for entry.

And then it was all over.

Munni could never remember clearly the events that followed. It seemed to her later, that no time at all had elapsed between that sudden last gasp from the bed and her calling out to a nurse, between the nurse's feeling for the pulse and the hurried fetching of the doctor, between the words of commiseration, the rituals of death and the graveyard.

She amazed herself by her punctilious regard for all that was correct and conventional. She even sent Badol a telegram on her way back to the little house where she and her mother had lived since liberation, with Badol and their son occasional visitors. The house seemed unchanged. It was too bleak and barren to be further affected.

Badol came three days later--he looked pale and withdrawn.

"You had better come back with me," he said, "There is nothing left for you here."

Is there anything left for me anywhere, she wondered, or for you either.

But she said nothing. Badol was walking up and down; he had never been able to sit still and even when seated always perched on the edge of the chair or bed like a runner poised for flight. He had another curious habit, this a legacy from when he still wore shirts and trousers (from which he had graduated via khadi kurta and pajama to the genji and lungi he wore now) and used to stand over his friends, arguing, his thumbs thrust into his pockets. There were no pockets now in his attire and he continually brushed the palms of his hands against his sides as though seeking the lost refuge of his thumbs.
He seems like a wrestler slapping his flanks with his hands before taking up a stance, thought Munni detachedly. But the aggression was illusory.

"We've got a small cooperative going in the village," Badol was telling her.

But it wasn't going well. Jomu, who had fought alongside Badol a year ago, had set himself up to receive the relief aid, seeds and fertilizer, and was selling these on the black market. The villagers were not against this in principle, they merely wanted to sell these themselves. They had fought too long against harsh elements and no longer had any hope left. The drought following the war and the rise of oil prices in the world had destroyed a fragile economy ravaged by months of fighting. Planting a field is basically an act of hope, a belief in the harvest. They had lost this hope and so they argued and haggled with Jomu who cursed them, but an agreement was likely.

Jomu and Badol had been together from their days as students. Next to Badol in their guerilla unit, he had taken the most risks. And he had suffered. His wife had burned to death when the army had burned the fields in which she and some other women were hiding. And that had been a merciful death compared with those of his brother and son when they were caught trying to derail a goods train.

And now? Badol shrugged his shoulders and slumped down on the bed.

"One must go on. After all what else can one do?" he smiled at Munni crookedly and put his arm around her shoulders.

"I am sorry about Amma."

The unexpectedness of this undid her.

"What is the use of all this?" she cried out. "I don't mean because you weren't here when Amma died. You couldn't even be with your father when he died. I didn't expect you and she didn't either. But what is the use of all this? More than 20 years of your life -- and for what? The cause you fought for is dying, the country you love is dying and nothing you can do will save it. You know when Amma was dying they couldn't even give her a transfusion. She bled all over when they did. Your precious cause and your precious country is just as sick -- it is bleeding to death. You can't save it. It doesn't even want you to. But we are still young enough. We could even have another child. You could teach, we could have a home together..." She stopped.

Badol had got up and was looking out of the window. Munni wondered if he had even heard what she was saying. But he had been listening.

"Munni," he said, "when your mother was dying, when you knew she would die whatever was done, did you stop?"

Munni cried, "But I wanted to! She wanted me to tell the doctor not to try any more. I just didn't have the courage."

And Badol replied gently, "I am no more courageous than you, my love.

The writer, who passed away recently, was Founder Executive Director of Ain O Shalish Kendra and a prominent social activist.

 
         

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