TOGETHER IN TIME is the story of Sanjay’s (narrator’s) guilt-ridden reaction to the death of his mother left alone in her last years to fend for herself, while her three adult children were lost in their own worlds she had built but in which she found no place.
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Sanjay is a journalist with a spiritual leaning. He is driving to a Delhi hospital where his mother is critically ill. His journey, her death, and her funeral open up new vistas for him. The vision sends him deep into himself from the start of his story to the end of hers, and beyond into the stories of many parents and their adult children.
His memories begin from the 1950s. He lives in Pune. Most homes are three-generational, with children, their parents, and grandparents living together. But his family is nuclear, comprising of his parents and siblings. Sanjay’s father, who had left his ancestral village in search of a job after quarrelling with his parents, takes another wife. He abandons Sanjay’s mother. She fights adversities with the power of a woman in a mother’s role, effacing herself to bring up her children. They grow up. His brother Kishor leaves for the U.S. to take up a job. She is proud, yet sad. Among her friends are old persons living alone miserably, with their adult children settled down in the U.S. One such person is Mrs. Sinha, a widow, whose worm-eaten body was discovered five days after she died, when neighbors found rancid smell coming from her house.
Kishor falls in love with an American and marries her against his mother’s wishes. Sanjay marries his girl friend Neelam and settles down in Sohna. His mother follows, locking up the home in Pune. Neelam, a U.S.-educated executive believing in Western values, insists on having a nuclear home. Sanjay resists, saying that the society can face what the UN calls “aging crisis”—growing number of the old whose proportion in population will become so large that social security systems will be inadequate to look after them—only if the world adopts the Indian family style. Tempers fray. To save Sanjay’s marriage, his mother quits the home and returns to Pune to live alone. He tells her that her return is a temporary reprieve and he will bring her back, come what may.
While she lives alone, Mrs. Sinha’s death haunts her. If she were to die, who will find her dead body? Worms? After how many days? Her interactions with her aged friends living and dying alone reveal to her the despair of old people secluded in homes resounding with memories of days of togetherness. As months pass, she herself despairs. Gradually she sees her ties slipping away. She craves for her family, but does not ask for her return, fearing conflicts between Sanjay and Neelam. Sanjay attains fatherhood. His priorities in relationships change. He postpones calling her. She dies waiting five years. Sanjay feels guilty and a growing distance with Neelam. He seeks solace volunteering in an old-age home. With the residents he vicariously lives through his mother’s last days. Neelam at times accompanies him to heal her relationship with him. Both realize what it is to be left alone in the last stages of physical and mental disintegration. With their new insights, they know that if a newborn is like the rising sun, the old are like the setting sun. Both bring wonderful colors into each day and make it complete. When Vijay wants to admit his mother Jayshree to the Home, Sanjay and Neelam, in accordance with the Home policy, try to persuade him to let her live with him. They fail. Their persistence to unite Jayshree with her family pays three years later, when a repentant Vijay takes his mother home to rehabilitate his truncated life. As Sanjay sees them going, he finds a small respite from his guilty conscience and a receding gap between him and his wife.
How often had I seen her battling alone against life’s implacability! The 70 years that had stormed through her to that winter night in 1998 must have razed her again and again. She flinched and faltered at times, winced and wept at times, but never gave up. Never. She plodded from one crisis to another, yet always emerged with fresh hope, as from decay springs new vibrant life. Her most compelling image in my mind was that of a stunningly brave woman. A silent, suffering warrior. A mother.
Cancer. I dreaded the word as much as the disease. Years ago, a childhood friend of mine, Anthony, had cancer. A young man in life’s prime, he sang his way through, putting laughter in each of life’s syllable. When his biopsy report said “ . . . single and small clusters of malignant cells consistent with metastatic adenocarcinoma,” I saw his death sentence shrouded in medical jargon. His laughter would overrule the death sentence, I thought. Wasn’t laughter the best medicine? He laughed graspingly, even when cancer, a terror made worse by treatment and false hope, agonized him. Each time I thought his pain had climaxed, and would reduce, and his laughter would return in full glory, there was some greater agony. Soon he passed away.
The memory of his laughter made mockery of my tears. But what remained was the memory of my tears making mockery of his laughter. After his death, when his laughter echoed through my memory, it was laced with tears, without any trace of joy, and made me wonder whether tragedy was the peak of happiness. Even when memory fades, an ache remains.
Kishor and I stepped out into the cold humid night. The silvery-gray Maruti Suzuki, parked in the long driveway lined with pots of Cattleya orchid clusters in white and purple inflorescence, looked forlorn in opulence. I took out the car.
My wife Neelam followed us. “Shall I come?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “The children are sleeping. Let’s not wake them up.”
I could not share my tragedies with her. She knew this and did not insist upon coming.
Soon Kishor and I were driving to the hospital. The short and narrow pathway connecting my home, in a quiet residential colony in Sohna, to the road leading to Delhi, meandered through mustard fields, serenely elevated above earthly turmoil. Somewhere in midfields an abandoned brickyard looked like a ghostly abode. The cold November air spread a moist layer on the windshield. My vision became blurred. I switched on the wipers. They moved to and fro, with a grating noise. They were old. I had wanted to replace them, but was postponing going to the workshop. The fine unevenness on the wiper rubber left moisture arcs on the windshield. I strained my eyes through the arcs to get a better road view. My mental vision confused my eyesight; and my eyesight, my mental vision.
I was speeding between rows of small contiguous shops, huddled together in sleep. The street lamps shed pale light on the lonely road. Suddenly I saw an albino screaming, “Death! Death!” and running frenziedly in shadows of the shops.
“No!” I cried. “She can’t die.”
“What happened?” Kishor asked.
I looked around searchingly. There was no albino. No trace of life anywhere. Everything on earth had come under the hood of death.
“Did you see an albino crying ‘death, death’ in the shadows of the shops?”
“I’m sure that death is lurking around.”
“Whose death?” Kishor asked smilingly, as if death had no chance anywhere around us. I saw a sepulcher in his smile.
Was I driving through a sepulcher? I looked up at the heavens in supplication. The moon shone half-heartedly, hiding an evil intention. A small sprinkling of stars shared the sky, reticent, unwilling, treacherous. Creation was a cemetery with a mysterious vault and millions of coffins underneath.
The greatest figure I had imagined with my mind was millions of stars in the sky. That night millions of coffins in the earth surpassed my imagination of millions of stars.
My confused mind led me to my first visit in a cemetery. Anthony’s body was lowered into the grave. Clods of mud covered him dictatorially. Soon he was lost, leaving behind a connective memory. The connection had an unknown dimension with an unknown world. Something from beyond reached out to me—a momentary flicker. But soon my life called me back from his death, to my home, relations, and work, and I returned to the daily grind, though a little different than before, with the flicker showing now and then—something fleeting from beyond.
From the noise and chaos of the daily grind, I returned to the cemetery on Anthony’s first death anniversary. Walking through it, with a bunch of flowers in my hand and childhood memories in my heart, I searched for his tombstone. Stony remembrances. Stones could be more expressive than weeping eyes and more fragile than loving hearts. I was alone. Four or five mango trees with muzzled foliage gave shade to long lines of graves. I felt danger. Unnatural. The morning sun began sinking. Was the danger real? Unreal? What was real? What was unreal? Where was my friend’s grave? I walked cautiously, reading epitaphs.
Clutter of names. Cluster of figures. Some fresh. Some partly effaced. Some old and dilapidated, on the verge of oblivion, with wild bushes growing around. I assured myself I was alive, and walked on, reading chronicles of grief. Dearest Mother; Dearest Father; Beloved Wife; Darling Son; and so on—all seized by death and ground to dust. Leaving nothing behind, but stony remembrances, and remembering stones. Behind the visible chronicling of grief was the invisible legend of helplessness.
Were these stones the boundary between transience and eternity? What was that feeling of trespassing into eternity as I crossed one stone after another? The process of living and dying once seemed simple: Either I was alive or dead. No more was it simple. I was walking through both life and death. Life was not a monolith. It was a dying process threaded throughout being. Death was not a monolith. It was a living process threaded throughout being. Each instant of life died and each instant of death lived, and vice versa, igniting its successor, and the troubled flame of being passed on and on, with no rest from the weary reiteration of samsara—the world I knew as distinguished from the world in reality.
A brightly colored butterfly beat its wings over the bushes. A spot of color in a grim world. Within me a trace of joy gasped for breath. But the chiseled story of a dead child destroyed it. A crow sang merrily on a tombstone. Its cheerfulness was infectious. A semblance of smile was about to break on my lips, when I suddenly found the name I was looking for. The smile turned into despair.
“Hi, Anthony.” I tried to speak, but the words could not reach beyond my heart. I placed the flowers on his grave and closed my eyes. His memories swept my mind as I remembered him laughing. Laughter pulled me one way, and grief another. Neither could bear me across hopelessness. I opened my eyes. Close to Anthony’s grave was an old tombstone. Very old, with its inscription almost obliterated. I stared at the emptiness of the tombstone. It showed no human name, but the eternal truth of mankind.
Suddenly I saw my mother’s name inscribed on it.
“No, she can’t die,” I moaned.
“What happened?” Kishor asked. “Would you like me to drive the car?”
A long pause. From life to grave was a short step, but from grave back to life was long.