Silence

short story

Silence

Anitha Murthy is a lazy dreamer, pretty content with life. A software consultant by profession, she likes to spend time with her family and friends, and loves reading and writing. The silence was broken by a murmur that started like a faraway wave. I was examining Mrs Swaminathan, an elderly woman who had complained of chest pain. Her hearing was still sharp.

“What’s going on outside, Doctor?” she asked.

“First let’s find out what’s going on inside you, shall we?” I smiled at her. “Now breathe in deeply.”

The murmur had reached a crescendo, and the corridor outside was positively bustling. It was a rare event by any standards in the otherwise sleepy Saptarishi Old Age home. Mrs Swaminathan tried to rise out of her chair. I did not blame her; I too was curious to see what the source of such a racket was.

I stepped out just in time to see an old man being wheeled to the last room on the corridor. The last room was the biggest, the most expensive in the home. It was more like a mini-suite, with an adjoining guest room which had a sofa and coffee table, guest bed, and kitchenette. No one had ever taken that room as far as I knew.

A small crowd was following the old man. It included the manager, Radhakrishna, his assistant Basappa, the nurses-cum-caretakers Leela, Pavitra and Girija, and attenders Mallikarjuna and Satisha. A youngish man in jeans and T-shirt, was at the front of this crowd along with presumably his wife, who was dressed in a figure-hugging outfit, with streaked, straight hair and sunglasses pushed up on her head.

“Sit down, Mrs Swaminathan. Don’t worry, I will soon tell you all about the new inmate.” I smiled at the old woman. “Now, I’m going to prescribe some tablets for you, and Leela will make sure you get them every day, OK?”

“For what do I need more tablets, Doctor?” Mrs Swaminathan sighed. “I only wish God grants me my desire to close my eyes in peace soon.”

“Till then, God has asked you to take these tablets!” I joked.

“Doctor?” Mallikarjuna was at the door. “Sir is asking for you to come to the last room.” He jerked his head in the general direction. Patting Mrs Swaminathan’s hand one last time, I followed the attender out.

Mr Ghosh, for that was what the old man’s name was, looked like a dry leaf that had floated down onto the bed. His thin silver hair hung loosely on a shrivelled head, his white shirt was two sizes large, and his eyes looked rheumy and confused.
“This is Dr Mitali,” Radhakrishna introduced me generally.

“Hi, I’m Bipin, Mr Ghosh’s son,” the youngish man shook my hand. “And this is my wife, Sanjana.” She just nodded, with no smile.

“Papa,” he said loudly and slowly, leaning over the old man. “This is your Doctor, Dr Mitali.”

Mr Ghosh proffered a limp hand, which I took gently.

“I need to talk to you,” Bipin turned to me. “Perhaps we can do it outside.”
He accompanied me to my desk in the manager’s room on the ground floor.

I didn’t have my own office as such; I just lived three houses away. I was initially working in one of the bigger hospitals in the city, but over two years ago, when I became pregnant, it was obvious I wouldn’t be able to continue working at all odd hours and different shifts. This part-time job with the old age home came as a blessing; it was not a very demanding job, and I could spend all the time I needed with my baby daughter.

When things became serious, the elderly were immediately shifted to a nearby hospital, so as long as I monitored their health diligently, ensured they took their medications on time, and kept an eye out for any warning symptoms, things went on pretty smoothly. The senior caretakers, Leela and Pavitra, were excellent and experienced nurses as well, and could cover for me in case of any emergency.

Radhakrishna was pleased too; he was getting 24X7 coverage for a pittance, for I really didn’t have it in me to charge them too much. As I told my husband, it was heart-breaking to see the elderly left to fend for themselves in their sunset years, and even the best medical care could not substitute for the family environment. Still, I was adopted by many of the inmates as their daughter, and I spent more time chatting and laughing and joking with them than providing them pure medical attention.

Bipin sat down in the steel chair I indicated.

“Doctor,” he began. “I just wanted to give you some background about my father. You see, he has undergone tremendous stress over the past few weeks. Actually, I live in the US with my wife. My parents were staying alone here in Garden Apartments. My father’s pretty much an invalid after he had a stroke about ten years ago, and my mother was the one taking complete care of him. She was a very dynamic person, my mother. She not only took care of him, she ran the house too, I mean, she did everything! She even found time to be an active member of the Rotary club.”

He took a deep breath.

“Unfortunately, she passed away three weeks ago. It was a terrible accident. She had dropped her gold ring on the balcony ledge, and when she was trying to reach for it, she lost her balance and fell down 14 storeys. She died instantly. As you can expect, it was a complete shock to all of us. I flew down immediately. My father was in a very bad shape. Luckily, the neighbours, Kumar and his family, took care of him for the few days it took for me to come home. The maid who tended to my father when my mother was out of the house also helped a great deal.”

Bipin paused.

“Doctor, I am very concerned about my father’s health. He has definitely deteriorated over the past few days. One of my friends gave me the contact of this old age home. He said that his uncle had stayed here, and had vouched for it. I am left with no choice now but to leave my father here. I cannot take him with me right now. Doctor, he will be taken good care of here, won’t he?”

“Of course,” I responded automatically. “You can trust us to take good care of him.”

“Thank you, Doc! In case there’s any emergency, please don’t hesitate to call me.” He pulled out a visiting card from his pocket and handed it over to me. Bipin Ghosh, it said. CEO, Trinity Solutions, Santa Clara, USA.

“Sure,” I said. My mind was buzzing with many questions, but he was already out of his seat and heading towards the door.

Mr Ghosh seemed to worsen every day. His cheeks grew more sunken, he ate very little, and he barely spoke. His condition was stable however, so I tried my best to cheer him up by spending a little more time with him, joking and laughing, trying to elicit some response.

“He spends every night moaning and crying,” Leela whispered to me one day. “He says strange things; it’s almost as if he is talking to his dead wife’s ghost or something. He keeps asking her to forgive him.”

“That sounds weird,” I said. “Almost as if he killed her!”

Leela nodded her head sagely. “You know, that’s what I’m beginning to suspect. What if he was the one who pushed her over the balcony?”

“But why would he do such a thing?” I was disturbed by Leela’s words. “His wife was the only one taking care of him. Why would he kill her? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“You know, I’ve heard a lot of strange stories,” Leela said. “I won’t put it past anyone to do anything nowadays. Who knows why? Maybe that maid had something to do with it.”

“What maid?”

“Oh Doctor!” Leela looked exasperated. “Don’t you remember — there was a maid who used to look after Mr Ghosh when his wife went out of the house. Maybe she pulled a fast one. Who knows, she might turn up with a baby in her arms one fine day and claim that it is Mr Ghosh’s child!”

“Really, Leela!” I couldn’t help smiling. “I think you should stop watching those silly soaps in the afternoon. You’re getting totally carried away. We don’t know the truth about what really happened, so I’m just going to go with what his son said. Now don’t you go around spreading all sorts of rumours. Poor Mr Ghosh, I think he’s had enough trouble already, I don’t think he needs to deal with any tall stories right now.”

“Ah, Doctor! You are so naïve!” Leela sighed, and went out of the room.

I went to Mr Ghosh’s room. He was lying in bed as usual, a vacant expression in his eyes.
“Hello, Mr Ghosh, how are you today?” I was at my cheerful best as I examined him. I kept chattering on, though he was as unresponsive as ever.

“And guess what, Mr Ghosh?” I continued, as if he had just answered my latest question. “Today’s a very special day for me. It’s Nisha’s second birthday! We’re having a small party — not too many guests, just a few friends over. I can’t believe my daughter is turning two already. Why, it feels like I just had her yesterday. Want to see her picture? Well, here it is!”

I pulled out her picture from my wallet.

“Isn’t she an absolute darling? Everyone says she looks like my husband, but I think she is more like me. See that chin, and the eyes? Don’t you agree? Well, maybe you can come to the party too. Wouldn’t you like that? I guess I can’t let you eat too much cake, but hey, it’s a special day, and once in a while, everyone’s allowed to cheat, right? So do come if you feel like it. That’s a special invitation just for you.”
I paused, but the old man seemed to be staring at the ceiling. I sighed and turned to leave.

“She was also two when she died.”

I wheeled around. Had Mr Ghosh just spoken?

He turned his head slowly till he could see me.

“She was also two, our Binita.”

I walked quietly back to the bed.

“She was so beautiful, sweet little Binita. She loved to hear her mother sing. Her mother always sang to her every night. She went to sleep like that. She liked chocolate. One day, we gave her a bar of chocolate and forgot all about it. She sat there so quietly. When we discovered her, her mouth was full, her face smeared with chocolate, her frock all messed up. She cried when her mother scolded her. One day, Bipin put her up on our mango tree and then he ran away. She sat there and cried from the afternoon till we came home in the evening. Poor little girl. Bipin got a thrashing for making his sister cry so much.”

I held Mr Ghosh’s hand.

“How did she die?” I asked him softly.

His cloudy eyes filled with tears.

“She was running across the street. A car came and knocked her down. She was so still, my little princess. And her mother, she went mad.”
“Mad?”

“Yes, she went mad with grief. She stayed mad inside. I always knew, she was mad inside.”

Mr Ghosh sighed deeply and closed his eyes. I waited, but he appeared to have drifted off to sleep. I slid my hand from his frail grip and walked out of the room quietly.
Mrs Ghosh was mad? That seemed to contradict everything Bipin had told me the other day — how dynamic she was, how she managed everything so well… Maybe she lost control, maybe she went over the edge? Was that why Mr Ghosh had killed her?

However, I just could not imagine Mr Ghosh pushing someone over. He himself was so weak, how could he ever have the strength to do that?

I’m getting just as bad as Leela with conspiracy theories, I thought to myself wryly. I was probably just imagining things, just the way Mr Ghosh imagined his wife had gone mad. Anyone would go crazy if their two-year-old child was suddenly killed, wouldn’t they?
The jangling of the mobile woke me up with a start. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the alarm clock. It showed 2.14 am. Who was calling me at this unearthly hour? It was Leela.
“Doctor, you had better come soon,” she said urgently. “Mr Ghosh seems…serious. He is asking for you.”

“Alright, alright, I’m coming,” I said, trying to untangle myself from the bedclothes. My husband had woken up and was looking bewildered. Luckily, Nisha was undisturbed, and still fast asleep.

I rushed to the old age home, with a shawl thrown over my nightie, and headed straight for Mr Ghosh’s room. Satisha, the attender, was waiting anxiously at the door. Leela was
smoothing Mr Ghosh’s forehead, murmuring something in a soothing voice.

“Hello, Mr Ghosh!” I said loudly, in what I hoped was a cheery voice. “Don’t worry, your doctor is here.”

Mr Ghosh didn’t seem to recognise my voice. I fired instructions at Leela, who hurried down with Satisha in tow. I examined the old man carefully, and Leela was right; he did appear to be heading downhill. As I took his pulse one more time, Mr Ghosh opened his eyes slowly.

“Doctor,” he said weakly. “You have come.”

“Yes I have, Mr Ghosh,” I said briskly.

“Can I tell you something, Doctor? I want to tell you something before I go.”

I clasped his hand in mine firmly.

He closed his eyes. His mouth was dry and I poured a few drops of water which he swallowed greedily.

“I am a murderer, Doctor,” he said so softly that I had to strain my ears to catch what he was saying. “I killed my wife.”

“Shhh…it’s ok,” I whispered, smoothing his forehead. So Leela was right after all.

“After Binita died, she went mad, Doctor, she went mad. But she had to look after Bipin, and she did. She did so well. And when Bipin left, she went a little madder, Doctor. But then I had a stroke, and she had to look after me. And she did, Doctor, she did. For 10 long years, she did everything for me. But her madness did not leave her. It grew deeper and deeper. And that day, she stood on the balcony, and I didn’t stop her, Doctor. I didn’t stop her. The madness was killing both of us anyway, a little every day. I sat and watched, Doctor, I sat and watched as she stepped over the railing and let go. I didn’t stop her, I killed her.”

He was moaning loudly now, thrashing from side to side, while I held him down. Leela came rushing in.

“Oh God, what’s happening?” She cried.

“Nothing, don’t worry,” I said, even as Mr Ghosh rolled his head, crying out loudly for forgiveness.

It took some time for the situation to settle down. As I watched Mr Ghosh breathing unevenly, adrift in a hell of his own, Leela brought me a cup of steaming coffee.
“Just one minute, can you take care of him? I need to get something from my desk.”

Leela nodded and took my place. I made my way to my desk in the manager’s room. I opened the drawer and rummaged the contents till I found what I was looking for — Bipin’s visiting card.

I looked up to find Leela at the door, a sombre expression on her face. I raised an eyebrow, and she shook her head, biting her lower lip.
It was time to make the phone call.

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